Autonomous Ships




Autonomous Ships, unmanned vessels, there are so many ways to discuss autonomous shipping that we almost have to remind ourselves the discussion over definitions is not quite yet over.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the UN agency in charge of providing a global forum on discussion of rules is undertaking a ‘scoping exercise’ to explore whether any of its regulations should be changed for autonomous ships.

The research effort will first review IMO rules to see whether they apply to Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) and would preclude MASS operations. The exercise will then “determine the most appropriate way of addressing MASS operations,” says IMO spokeswoman Natasha Brown.

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IMO has a commitment to ensuring that benefits offered by emerging technologies can be fully realized but without compromising safety, security or environmental protection,” Brown says. “So the decision to take a scoping exercise was prompted by the need to take a proactive and leading role, given the rapid technological developments relating to the introduction of commercially operated ships in autonomous/unmanned mode.”

At the 99th session of its Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 99) in May, a group was formed to start the exercise and provided an update in December.  IMO member states are conducting the exercise with the support of IMO staff, with inputs from governmental and non-governmental organisations.  The study is expected to finish by 2020.  Much of the exploration would consider the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREG).

Rolls- Royce has been pioneering in this field, particularly in relation to the digitalisation, design and operations of this.  More recently they have set up the Research & Development Centre for Autonomous Ships in Finland and as part of their work is reaching out to explore partnerships. research collaboration and business networks.  Other organisations include DNVGL and well-known projects include the MUNIN project.

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How about in Japan?  The private sector has been very active with examples of the following:

  • Nippon Foundation looks to funding autonomous ship research, raising public awareness and made joint announcements at Sea Japan 2018 from 11-13 April highlighting potential opportunities in Autonomous shipping. Executive Director of The Nippon Foundation, Mitsuyuki Unno and Secretary of State of the Ministry of Trade and Industry of Norway, Daniel Bjarmann- Simonsen spoke with Bjarmann-Simonsen sharing, “We’re also about to enter the autonomous shipping revolution, some argue that the autonomous ship will change our industry like the smart phone has changed life on the planet,.” 

According to Director Unno, “It’s mostly the specialists that are in talks about autonomous vessels and I would like to open it up to the public and I think it’s one of the roles of the Nippon Foundation to get more information out to the public,” Unno explained. “Much of the public in Japan does not know about autonomous vessels, it equals it not existing, almost.”




  • The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism (MLIT) has selected a joint demonstration project proposed by Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL) and partners on autonomous shipping.  Mitsui E&S Shipbuilding, Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology (TUMST), and Akishima Laboratories (Mitsui Zosen) are involved in the project, which is associated with automated and autonomous operations of vessels’ berthing and un-berthing activities.   It was selected for MLIT’s FY2018 autonomous vessel demonstration project and will aim to bring vessels with autonomous berthing and un-berthing service by 2025.

According to MOL,

“Human errors account for 80% of marine accidents, and since automated and autonomous operations of vessels can significantly reduce human errors, they have the potential to make a great contribution to reducing marine accidents.

“Furthermore, autonomous operations hold great promise in reducing the workload for mariners, and represent a fundamental change in ocean transport.” v1.jpeg



  • NYK and NYK Group companies MTI Co. Ltd, Keihin Dock Co. Ltd and Japan Marine Science Inc  have also been selected to participate in a demonstration project utilising ship manoeuvring support functions and remote control by 2025.

About the NYK Group’s Initiatives
With the aim to pursue efficient, safe operations and reduce crew workload, NYK and NYK Group companies MTI and JMS have been using advanced technology to develop an autonomous ship, including a study on collision risk judgement and the autonomous operation of vessels, a study that is being conducted together with three nautical instrument manufacturers in Japan and has been selected for sponsorship by MLIT. The NYK Group applied to participate in MLIT’s new project because one of the NYK Group’s studies has entered the demonstration stage prior to implementation.

– About the Demonstration
To date, the NYK Group has been working with nautical instrument manufacturers and partners to develop a manned remotely controlled system that can support the crew. Such a system would collect, integrate, and analyze information around the ship, prepare an action plan, and after the approval of operators at remote locations or on board, take action in accordance with the plan. This demonstration aims to make use of this system in an actual situation.




Other companies selected to take part in the project includes:

* Companies selected to participate in the demonstration project for remotely controlled ship include MTI Co. Ltd., Nippon Kaiji Kyokai (NK), Port and Airport Research Institute, Ikous Corporation, NYK, Keihin Dock Co. Ltd., Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Co. Ltd., Niigata Power Systems Co. Ltd., Uzushio Electric Co. Ltd., SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation, Tokyo Keiki Inc., Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation, NTT DOCOMO, Inc., Japan Radio Co. Ltd., Furuno Electric Co. Ltd., and Japan Marine Science Inc.

To what extent would the Quasi- Zenith Satellite System (QZSS) play a role in maritime navigation systems?  As QZSS is meant to be a centimetre level augmentation service (CLAS) it is meant to ensure even better accurate positioning.  With its’ application in autonomous shipping, it could prove to be of vital importance particularly as current work on demonstration projects are underway.  Whilst the initial usage of autonomous shipping is surrounding berthing and unberthing, the long term vision for autonomous shipping extends to commercial and international shipping and hence such vigorous tests are needed to ensure reliability and predictability.


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source: QZSS

Whilst autonomous shipping even at present is considered primarily R&D, for those wishing to strategically position themselves in the future market of shipping, there is no denying that autonomous ships or ‘smart ships’ are foreseen in the future.  And it is in line with autonomous developments in relation to vehicles on roads, air and space.

Whilst the law may vary, discussed and eventually changed, in the meantime, the focus is on the technology.  Discussions with stakeholders and I would go as far as with cross sector industries is important, to ensure smooth transitions and developments such as traffic management systems.  It is a hot topic in space, though one can foresee how technologies do not fit neatly in a box.  With onset discussions on hybrid vessels, that mount on land as in sea, or those that cross breed from sea to air, policy makers, engineers and entrepreneurs need to be open to discussions on this.

Is the IMO the best forum to discuss autonomous shipping?  Only time will tell, in the meantime, all interested stakeholders be it actually out at sea, or land or in space has an important role to play and that is to contribute and voice their concerns in the developments so to assist the global community to come to some forum of consensus in which to move forward.


source: IMO

From an entrepreneurial angle, it is important that any of these discussions do not impede or invalidate tests or experiments at sea, as now is the crucial time for startups and entrepreneurs to test the waters, so to speak.


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