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Automation for the Maritime Industry

By: Gerardo Javier Ponce Reyes[1]


Throughout history, mankind has witnessed the continuous evolutionary processes of maritime transport as one of the main foundations for the development of peoples around the world in term of commercial exchange of goods. It constitutes a means allowing the interconnection of countries worldwide; contributing, in turn, to economy enhancement and the socio-productive progress of nations.

Maritime transportation, an essential factor to global economy, faces nowadays important changes due to new technologies and automation. The concept of an “unmanned or autonomous vessel” has drawn considerable attention both in the maritime industry as well as the media and labor organizations such as The International Federation of Transport Workers (ITF). The term “unmanned or autonomous vessel” has potential, far-reaching implications for ordinary life as we know it around the planet, for the global economy, and especially for more than one and a half million seafarers working in the industry.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO)[2] has been promoting the implementation and use of new technologies in the maritime industry, thus supporting innovation and efficiency, so that all the actors in the shipping business have multiple ways of solving their problems, without affecting or compromising operations, safety, and the protection measures of the marine environment.

Automation for the Maritime Industry after Covid-19

On March 11, 2020, after the World Health Organization (WHO)[3] declared the outbreak derived from COVID-19 as a global pandemic, we are facing a new reality. The devastating impact this pandemic has rapidly provoked, has resulted in a health and economic crisis with unexpected disruptions to the way we live, think and work. Once mankind manages to overcome this challenging and uncertain situation, it would be worth wondering: how will we recover from this situation? Will we get back to “business as usual” in the maritime industry, or will we witness enduring changes at individual, organizational, and government levels?.

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has exposed existing weaknesses in the maritime industry, in international organizations such as IMO, in governments, and in our economies; hence the radical shift in the urgency and importance of addressing these weak links, bringing forward new decisions and discussions along with it. This being said, we hope to see real, unprecedented momentum, in order to boost the simultaneous transformation of the maritime shipping industry and society altogether.

In this sense, the International Maritime Organization (IMO)[4] jointly with the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Chamber of Shipowners (ICS)[5] and the International Federation of Transport Workers (ITF)[6], have come up with guidelines and recommendations for governments and authorities in order to reduce the worldwide spread of the virus, and to guarantee a smooth performance of the international trade and transport of goods in times of COVID-19[7].

However, such recommendations have not been entirely enough, particularly considering the difficulties that hundreds of thousands of seafarers, who work beyond their contractual periods, are facing due to the existing restrictions to rotations and changes in crews, as well as limitations for travel and/or transfer due to the pandemic[8]. The problem is also evident for Classification Societies, facing difficulties to carry out corresponding renewal inspections of vessels and/or statutory certificate issuance.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in its Review of Maritime Transport 2019[9], expressed that “maritime transport remains the backbone of globalized trade and the manufacturing supply chain, as more than four fifths of world merchandise trade by volume is carried by sea because the transport system has proven worldwide to be more efficient and profitable for most merchandise“.

This means, according to UNCTAD[10], that more than eighty percent (80%) of world merchandise trade in volume and seventy percent (70%) in value are transported by sea. More than 50,000 vessels, across the seas, carry different types of merchandise and essential supplies that support ordinary life as we know it -hence the importance of this industry.

Some experts[11] think that unmanned or autonomous vessels could revolutionize the maritime industry and imply a radical change, as happened with containers when they were introduced in the shipping business 60 years ago[12]. Back in 2017, the global maritime industry was valued at around $12 trillion.

From the commercial standpoint, the argument to support the use of unmanned or autonomous vessels, is that such result lower fuel consumption, fewer idle hours, fewer personnel, and lower operational costs, which would reduce considerably the number of crew on board, as well as their rotation and change rates. In addition, around 70% of all accidents occur due to human factor[13]. The introduction of automation could benefit such numbers. Furthermore, the significant costs of employing on-board crew, which are approximately between 31% and 36% of the total operational costs, serve as a driving force behind the intentions to increase vessels’ autonomy.

Of course, experts also consider that unmanned or autonomous vessels would not replace crews completely. Advances in technology will continue to make shipping activities safer and more efficient, but this technology will not replace the seamen or crew operating them. Basically, if self-driving cars are a reality in the near future, then unmanned or autonomous vessels are certainly on the horizon for the maritime industry, since vessels move at slower speeds with less-demanding requirements for position updates.

In addition, fully unmanned or autonomous vessels can decrease risks for crews in situations such as those arising in times of COVID-19, like rotations and change difficulties, when their regular contracted periods on board end. Advantages will be evident, as well, when performing extremely dangerous operations like mine sweeping and ordinance removal, and for scientific vessels studying volcanic islands.

Automation for the Maritime Industry: regulatory framework

One of the top questions is: when would the maritime industry witness these unmanned or autonomous vessels sailing throught the world? Experts predict that the timeline for this could be less than five years[14]. Of course, IMO must beforehand prepare and put into force a regulatory framework through a set of guidelines, resolutions, conventions or amendments, to fully regulate the activity. Moreover, nations must do the same with their internal laws.

On July 5, 2017, IMO issued MSC-FAL.1/Circ.3[15] – Guidelines on maritime cyber risk management, containing guidelines and high-level recommendations on maritime cyber risks management in Safety Management Systems (SMS) to safeguard shipping companies from current and emerging cyber threats and vulnerabilities. This document included functional elements supporting an effective management of said risks.

Cybertechnology has become essential to the operation and management of the several critical systems that remain crucial to the safety and security of shipping and protection of the marine environment[16]. These guidelines recommend the implementation of cyber security controls in 5 main stages: Identify, protect, detect, respond and recover.

The Maritime Safety Committee (MSC)[17], in its 98th Session in June 2017, also adopted Resolution MSC.428 (98)[18]Maritime Cyber Risk Management in Safety Management Systems, with the aim of encouraging Maritime Administrations to ensure that cyber risks are appropriately addressed in existing safety management systems (as defined in the ISM Code) by no later than the first annual verification of the company’s Document of Compliance (DOC) after January 1th, 2021.

The maritime industry has been immersed in a continued evolutionary process through automation and digitalization. The industry has also recognized the hazard of potential repercussions by conducting thorough international regulatory scoping exercises before irreversible consequences could happen.

IMO adopted “Regulatory scoping exercise on Marine Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS)[19]” regarding safe, secure and environmentally sound conditions, through the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in June 2017, and established a working group to follow up on its development. OMI has agreed on a definition of the degrees of vessel autonomy: 1) Ship with automated processes and decision-making support, 2) Remotely controlled ship with on board crew, 3) Remotely controlled ship without on board crew; and 4) Fully autonomous ship.

For the purpose of the regulatory scoping exercise, “Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS)” is defined as a vessel which, to varying degrees, can operate independently of human intervention.

During a regulatory review the MSC´s scoping exercise for MASS, the list of instruments to be covered includes those related to safety (SOLAS Convention), Collisions regulations (COLREG), Loading and stability (Load Lines Convention), Training of seafarers (STCW and STCW-F), Search and rescue (SAR Convention), Tonnage measurement (Tonnage Convention), and special trade passenger ship instruments (SPACE STP, STP). The goal is to conclude the regulatory scoping exercise on Marine Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) in 2020.

In addition, the private sector has issued the guidelines on cyber security on board ships, developed and issued by BIMCO[20], CLIA[21], ICS[22], INTERCARGO[23], INTERTANKO[24], IUMI[25] and the International Group of Indemnity Protection Insurance[26].

IMO suggests that trials of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) will be key towards developing an appropriate regulatory regime addressing the specific challenges of autonomous ships. Right now, China, Denmark, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Republic of Korea, and Singapore (All IMO Members) have come together to form the MASSPorts, an autonomous ships/ports interface, promoted by Singapore to address any challenges and come up with standards for trials and operation of MASS in ports.

The prompt arrival of unmanned or autonomous vessels can be evidenced by the order placed by the Dutch-based shipping company Port Liner[27] to the American technology giant Tesla –whose mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy– to build several electric port container vessels over 110 meters long with a capacity of 270 containers, which will be working with four battery boxes of 20 feet each that will allow them to move for 35 hours, charged on land by a carbon-free energy provider. The investment in the project would be approx. €100 million. The first vessels would be delivered by August 2020. This could represent the beginning of the transition process of the maritime industry towards 100% sustainable, zero-emission vessels guided by artificial intelligence.

This ship construction order also includes vessels to be operated by the Belgium and Netherlands fleet, 52 meters long and 6.7 meters wide, with a capacity for 24 20-foot containers with a maximum weight of 425 tons.

Furthermore, one the world’s largest shipping company, A.P. Moller – Maersk has lately formed a joint project team with IBM for developing and integrating artificial intelligence systems in their ship operation. In addition, a Dutch consortium has launched a Joint Industry Project (JIP) to study and demonstrate the technical advantages of autonomous shipping. The UK government has moved forward with legislative changes in this area. From its end, China announced the construction of the world’s biggest testing site for unmanned or autonomous vessels in the city of Zhuhai at the beginning 2018.

The USA has not fallen behind, and has implemented fully autonomous systems in navy vessels, just like they did in the aviation field. They are undertaking a thorough examination of its viability in commercial shipping. Japan and The Republic of Korea have established together task forces for developing unmanned or autonomous vessels focusing on technological applications without human interaction[28]. Evidently, the transition process to automation and digitalization in maritime industry has begun.

Likewise, after what happened with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Classification Societies seek to reinvent themselves by contemplating the possibility of implementing remote inspections through the use of information and communication technologies, which would result in the Surveyor’s role radically changed when facing this new methodology[29].

Electrical technologies and energy storage are emerging as alternative solutions to reduce fossil fuel consumption in the shipping industry.

Electric propulsion and battery storage systems will play a key role in reaching IMO´s[30] global target to counter climate change and to cut total greenhouse gas emissions in maritime shipping by 50% in 2050 (compared to 2008 levels), while seeking to eliminate them entirely.

Currently, the big actors in the maritime industry, from suppliers to shippers to fleet operators, are moving fast to implement and commercialize the new technologies. Although internal combustion engines will remain the standard for the time being, battery and electrical technologies have enough leverage to be used in maritime applications, thanks to advancements in the automotive sector, such as the ones achieved by Tesla, the largest electric vehicle manufacturer in the world. Furthermore, continuous technological advancements will bring costs down and improve the viability of these technologies for maritime applications.

When ships arrive and leave ports, vital information related to cargoes on board, dangerous goods, crews, vessels details and many others important information has to be provided to the authorities ashore. Under IMOS´s Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (1965), in an amended form, it is required that administrations to set up systems so that all these processes are carried out digitally.

Along with IMO, the World Customs Organization, as well as the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the International Organization for Standardization have signed a cooperation agreement to support an increased maritime digitization[31]. The association agreement covers the updating of IMO’s Reference Data Model, which is a key element of IMO’s Compendium on facilitation and electronic commerce, a technical manual for software developers.

The undersigned association agreement entered into force on March, 15. It also paves the way to update IMO’s Reference Data Model and its further development towards harmonization of data standards in other areas, such as the exchanging operational data that could help facilitate just-in-time operation of vessels. The introduction of just-in-time operation enables vessels to optimize their speed so when they arrive at their destination port, their berth is ready for them, thereby saving energy, and reducing costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

The parties responsible of this agreement have been cooperating to develop the IMO Reference Data Model, which is a key element of the IMO Compendium on facilitation and electronic business. It covers the reporting requirements defined in the Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic Convention to support transmission, receipt, and response of information required for the arrival, stay and departure of vessels, peoples and cargo through electronic data exchange. This work ensures interoperability[32] between the respective standards of each organization.


It is evident that the world has been changing constantly under digitalization and automation, even faster since the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic began. We can also affirm the true value of automation can be appreciated when these technologies are applied. The maritime industry does not escape this reality.

The introduction of new technologies in the maritime industry, as in other sectors, requires governments and authorities to carry out a comprehensive process to amend existing legal regulations or create new ones to regulate them.

IMO, through its different committees, should design a regulatory framework through a set of guidelines, resolutions and/or conventions or amendments, to regulate everything related to unmanned or autonomous vessels.

However, taking into account that shipping business has a relevant international scope, such modification should have to consider a complex economic, societal and political matrix. Furthermore, cyber security faces latent threats that are increasing in the world, regardless of borders or trade. Inhabiting the territory of advanced Information and Communication Technologies (ITC), will require an extremely high and robust level of security. Furthermore, investing and implementing in new technologies would costs a lot of money, which will limit the ability to implement.

The IMO´s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), has indicated that the threats are presented by malicious actions such as cyber piracy attacks (hacking) or introduction of malware against ITC vessels systems, or the unintended consequences of benign actions like software maintenance or user permissions. These actions highlight vulnerabilities such as outdated software, ineffective firewalls or exploit a vulnerability in operational or information technology. In order to be effective and efficient, cyber risk management should consider all kinds of threats.

The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF)[33] expects that seafarers are ready to adapt to such changes as this will be critical. Consequently, new situations could generate chaos, uncertainty and lack of control for seafarers. However, seafarers appreciate digitalization when it guarantees their safety and protection. But, historically, technological development has required seafarers to be properly educated and trained, and this will be another challenge that the maritime industry would face.

Finally, the ITF believes that digitalized and automated data exchange systems reduce administrative burdens. The tasks in general, including watch keeping duties, create physical and mental challenges for seafarers onboard owing to the nature of vessel environment, and are identified as a cause of seafarers’ fatigue. As a result, improving working and living environment could be a compelling solution for enhancing safety and security. In this regard, manufacturers have been developing automation and digitalization in vessels so that seafarers’ physical and mental workloads can be reduced, and the work performance can be improved.

There are bound to be many other situations and issues that will need to be considered during the process of transitioning from the current system to the digital and automated system.

  1. Lawyer (USM). He is partner of the law firm SOV CONSULTORES / sovconsultores.com.ve. He is a lawyer specialized in Maritime Law. He also has been worked as a substitute Maritime Superior Judge in Caracas and permanent consultant in Venezuela to United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), since 2012. He has been professor of Marine Risks at Caribbean Maritime University for more than eight years. He is a member of both the Ibero-American Institute Maritime Law (IIDM) and the Venezuelan Maritime Law Association (AVDM). He has participated as speaker in both National and International, where he has discussed on different topics, such as the Law of Maritime Commerce, Maritime Procedure and Maritime Business.
  2. International Maritime Organization.
  3. World Health Organization.
  4. International Maritime Organization.
  5. International Chamber of Shipping.
  6. International Transport Federation.
  7. N° 79 – UNCTAD/PRESS/PB/2020/3 – April 2020.
  8. http://www.imo.org/es/MediaCentre/WhatsNew/Paginas/Default.aspx.
  9. UNCTAD Annual Report 2019.
  10. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. UNCTAD Research Paper N° 48 – UNCTAD/SER.RP/2020/7.
  11. https://www.de.cgi.com/sites/default/files/2019-08/smartport-smartshipping-whitepaper.pdf.
  12. Saxon, S., & Stone, M. (2017). Container shipping: the next 50 years. Whitepaper McKinsey.
  13. Van Cappelle, L., Chen, L., & Negenborn, R. (2018). Survey on ASV technology developments and readiness levels for autonomous shipping. In Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Computational Logistics (ICCL 2018), Vietri sul Mare, Italy.
  14. https://www.de.cgi.com/sites/default/files/2019-08/smartport-smartshipping-whitepaper.pdf.
  15. Guidelines on maritime cyber risk management. http://www.imo.org/en/OurWork/Security/Guide_to_Maritime_Security/Documents/MSC-FAL.1-Circ.3%20-%20Guidelines%20On%20Maritime%20Cyber%20Risk%20Management%20(Secretariat).pdf
  16. Guidelines on maritime cyber risk management. http://www.imo.org/en/OurWork/Security/Guide_to_Maritime_Security/Documents/MSC-FAL.1-Circ.3%20-%20Guidelines%20On%20Maritime%20Cyber%20Risk%20Management%20(Secretariat).pdf
  17. Maritime Safety Committee (MSC).
  18. Maritime cyber risk. http://www.imo.org/en/ourwork/security/guide_to_maritime_security/pages/cyber-security.aspx.
  19. http://www.imo.org/es/MediaCentre/PressBriefings/Paginas/08-MSC-99-MASS-scoping.aspx.
  20. Baltic and International Maritime Council.
  21. Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA)
  22. International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).
  23. International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners (INTERCARGO).
  24. International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (INTERTANKO).
  25. International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI).
  26. International Group of Protection & Indemnity Clubs.
  27. https://www.portliner.nl/.
  28. https://www.businessfinland.fi/49e303/globalassets/finnish-customers/02-build-your-network/digitalization/smart-mobility/future-watch_digital-ships-report.pdf.
  29. https://www.naucher.com/actualidad/las-nuevas-tecnologias-se-asoman-al-mundo-de-las-sociedades-clasificadoras/.
  30. UN body adopts climate change strategy for shipping. http://www.imo.org/en/mediacentre/pressbriefings/pages/06ghginitialstrategy.aspx.
  31. Just In Time Arrival Guide issued to support smarter, more efficient shipping –http://www.imo.org/en/mediacentre/whatsnew/pages/default.aspx

  32. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) provides the generally accepted definition of interoperability. It defines the term as “the ability of two or more systems or components to exchange information and to use the information that has been exchanged.” See IEEE Standard Computer Dictionary: A Compilation of IEEE Standard Computer Glossaries (New York, NY: 1990).
  33. https://www.itfglobal.org/en/focus/automation/ship-automation-why-do-we-have-to-care.