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The ‘ghost ship’ set to be the future of shipping

7 March 2017
– 6 Minute Read


With self-driving motor vehicles poised to be a real prospect on our roads by 2020, it is no surprise that the shipping industry is faced with the introduction of unmanned vessels on the seas. Rolls Royce, one of the key manufacturers in the unmanned vessel space, expects the first shore-side remote controlled vessels to sail within 10 -15 years.

The key benefit of automation is the elimination of human input. It is well established that many of the incidents that occur on the road or casualties that occur on the seas are caused by human error. Safety and environmental efficiency is one of the key benefits to the introduction of  unmanned vessels. It is expected that these vessels will be safer and ‘greener’ than their current equivalent ‘manned vessels’.

Moreover, many casualties at sea are caused by slower reaction times, human error in making decisions under pressure, fatigue due to shift work, poor maintenance, equipment failure, or a combination of the above. In tough economic times, ship owners are under pressure to maintain their vessels. Human error increases under these conditions. These ’human error costs’ are one of the biggest concerns for Protection and Indemnity insurers when insuring against losses caused by marine accidents.

Allianz S.E. reported that human error accounts for more than 75% of marine losses. Norwegian based Protection and Indemnity Club, Gard AS reports that as much 70 – 80% of marine accidents are attributed to human error.  The introduction of unmanned vessels may be the most immediate solution. However, the concern is whether it is the most viable solution.

Other benefits to the introduction of unmanned vessels may include decrease in crew costs and in operational overheads and an increase in capacity. Having crew on board a vessel requires extra space, including accommodation, ablution facilities, and a galley, which could be used as cargo space. The decrease in operational costs is an attractive prospect to ship-owners. Rolls Royce also predict  the decrease in the risk of piracy attacks in unmanned vessels, due to there being no humans to use as leverage for ransoms. However, the counter-argument to the prevention of piracy is that the human element, including the use of armed guards may prevent piracy attacks. This argument may be resolved by employing drone technology as security.

The idea of automation as a means to managing the crew complement and increasing efficiancy on board a vessel is not  new. For example, instead of placing reliance on paper charts, modern vessels are equipped with sophisticated Electronic Chart Display and Information system (ECDIS) and Automatic Radar Plotting Aid (ARPA) systems. In addition, many vessels are also fitted with Unmanned Machinery Space (UMS), as regulated by international convention. The UMS automatically detects high exhaust temperatures in the engine room, fires and flooding and sets off alarms on various controls panels situated in the vessel. The system assesses the basic problem, which allows the relevant crew member to take the necessary remedial action.  In some instances, the engine will engage an automatic slow-down when a problem is encountered as a result of the UMS. The number of vessels equipped with UMS technology has increased rapidly over recent years and is now a crucial tool for safety and maintenance on board a vessel. The degree to which automated systems have replaced crew is well illustrated by introduction of the mega container vessels, such as the Maersk triple E class vessel, which can carry up to 18000 containers, but is  manned by a meagre crew compliment of 13.

Given the current levels of automation, it seems that the next logical step in technological development would be an entirely unmanned vessel, controlled remotely from land.

Although the benefits are clear and technological capabilities are in place, there remain many obstacles to ship owners, operators and insurers to the introduction of autonomous ships. The legal and regulatory framework needed for the introduction of these unmanned ships is the primary obstacle. International conventions form the basis for commercial dealing, such as the arranging of fixtures and importantly insurance cover. Without an amendment to the international framework, unmanned vessels will have to fit into the international framework created by the Safety of Life at Sea convention (SOLAS) and the International Safety Management (ISM) code.

SOLAS is comprehensive in regulating safety at sea, including the requirements relating to navigational safety and ship manning. Unmanned ships may fall foul of current regulations setting out a minimum crew requirement, be illegal and unseaworthy, and therefore uninsurable and not commercially operational. However, this approach does not take into account the ‘shore side crew’ or ’crew operation centers’, which may be involved in the operation of the unmanned vessels. It is an open question whether the provisions of SOLAS can be read to include the definitions of an unmanned or whether amendments or a separate code for unmanned vessels is required. What is clear is that unmanned vessel and SOLAS are seeking to achieve the same goal – safety at sea.

Insurers calculate risk based on data. With the introduction of unmanned vessels, there is no reliable data on the potential risks other than what is produced by the manufacturers, which is not independent data. In the circumstance, insurers may have a real issue in calculating the risk and therefore the premium payable in terms of unmanned vessels. The insurability of these unmanned vessels is also dependent on the regulatory framework established to provide for the operation of unmanned ships. There are clear benefits and elimination of risks, but also new risks to consider, such as internet and cyber security. Can the systems be infiltrated by malware, for instance? What are the risks in terms of manned ships at sea interacting with unmanned ships at sea?  What are the product liability issues?

Technology is driving the development of safety at sea. However, it cannot do so alone. The human element is still omnipresent in the development of the legal and regulatory framework, which drives the commercial operation. Without the necessary foundation, it appears that unmanned vessel may have to sit on the sidelines for the time being. The pressure is now on the legislatures and policy makes to provide the necessary framework. It is expected that the SOLAS 2024 regulations will provide for a ‘watch-free bridge’ system similar to the UMS, which already exists.

What is clear is that we are moving towards an era of autonomous shipping where the next logical step will be the unmanned vessel.  Industry stakeholders will now have to come together to consider the legal and commercial implications of the future of shipping.