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Legal Blog

How Will Autonomous Shipping Affect the Maritime Industry?

The ever-increasing level of technology in the realm of artificial intelligence is sweeping into the territory of autonomous shipping. The latest beneficiaries of this technology include remotely-controlled vessels piloted by human controllers onshore, and autonomous ships. Developments with telecommunications, electronic sensors, and computing technologies have been moving into other autonomous transportation vehicles for some time now, including planes, helicopters, planes, and trains. Ships are now becoming an additional focus as the move toward more autonomous means of transportation develops further.

At The Krist Law Firm, P.C., we stand on the side of injured maritime workers who have incurred suffering and loss as a result of an injury at sea. With our experience and resources, we’re here to work on your behalf for the compensation you may be owed in the aftermath of your injuries.

To obtain a free case evaluation with one of our maritime injury lawyers, call our office today at 281-283-8500, or contact us through our online form.

Technological Ambitions for Autonomous Shipping

Rolls-Royce is one innovator working on the development of autonomous technology in the maritime industry. The company has a vision to introduce autonomously-operated vessels into service over the next several years. Specifically, the company hopes to release a remotely-operated autonomous local ship by 2020, a remotely-operated autonomous ship traveling in international waters by 2025, and fully-autonomous unmanned ships traversing the ocean by 2035.

Automated Ships and Kongsberg Maritime is following an ambitious project timeline to build Hronn, the first unmanned, fully autonomous offshore supply vessel. The goal is to have the vessel in operation by 2018.

On a larger scale, Japanese shipping companies are working in conjunction with shipbuilders to design, develop, and construct self-piloting cargo ships that could enter service by 2025. The One Sea ecosystem project in the Baltic Sea, begun in 2016, aims to introduce fully remote-controlled vessels within three years, and reach the goal of having autonomous commercially-operated maritime vessels traversing the seas by 2025.

Remotely-controlled and autonomous shipping technology is in the process of rapid development. Eventually, vessels on the sea may have the capability to efficiently and successfully evaluate their surrounding environment as well as the health of the ship itself, enabling them to make crucial decisions based on this data.

The operation of shipping vessels and the entire chain of cargo transport can be potentially transformed through the introduction of automation in the maritime industry.

Potential Benefits

Autonomous shipping holds the potential for providing numerous benefits to the maritime industry. One benefit is the reduction of human error that often plays a key role in the cause of accidents at sea. Some estimates have placed human error as the cause of marine accidents at 75 to 96 percent of cases. Additionally, after a review performed by Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty – an insurance company that provides different types of industrial insurance worldwide – of 15,000 marine liability insurance claims, it was determined that 75% of all the claims are due to human error.

The reasonable assumption is that autonomous, unmanned shipping vessels would be safer for human life, eliminating the risks faced by crews on the high seas that can potentially result in injury or death.

In addition to protecting human life, another potential benefit involves the enhanced productivity introduced through the reduction in fuel costs. It has been estimated that crew costs that include air-conditioning units, crew quarters, heavy ballast, and other amenities, along with the salaries of seamen can reach 10 to 44 percent of a ship owner’s operating expenditure depending on the nature of the vessel. The reduction in weight due to eliminating many of these items from the ship can amount to lesser fuel costs and more space for cargo.

As well, a potential improvement in logistics may be realized through the addition of designated lanes on the high seas for autonomous shipping which may contribute to a more efficient cargo transport system.

The possibility of a reduction in piracy incidents has been suggested as autonomous shipping increases, since the leverage often used in these incidents – the crew itself – has been removed. However, the potential also exists for piracy threats to increase since bandits on the high seas may work harder to compromise cybersecurity obstacles in order to gain access to these vessels.

Potential Downsides

Although benefits exist from the implementation of autonomous shipping in the maritime industry, the speed at which this technology can be implemented into international shipping processes may depend on several factors. The cost of manufacturing a ship with the required technology for remote-controlled and autonomous operations may be significantly higher than that for a conventional vessel.

Currently, low-cost labor seafarers handle shoreside support services for repairs, maintenance, and other functions. Eliminating the crew would require the development of shoreside infrastructure systems around the globe for monitoring and control purposes, as well as maintenance and repair operations.

There may be little economic justification for ship owners to embrace the concept of autonomous ships and all of the associated shoreside infrastructure required if the added costs of implementing an automated shipping system cannot be counterbalanced by the reductions in crew-related costs.

Shipowners will need to see a competitive advantage in the elimination of crew costs before fully embracing autonomous shipping.

There is doubt among some as to whether machines can perform with the intelligence and decision-making capabilities equivalent to or better than humans in the face of complex maritime situations.

Crews on the high seas engage in active skills that keep them sharp in solving problems on a daily basis. Transferring human participation to less active tasks such as monitoring displays shoreside may have an unintended effect of facilitating human error. These are issues to consider regarding the effect of implementing an automated shipping system in the maritime industry.

Safety, Regulatory, and Timeframe Challenges

An array of regulatory and legal issues must be resolved before a full phase-in of autonomous shipping can occur. This process will likely take place over a considerable period of time as maritime law and conventions are reviewed and adjusted to conform to the needs of autonomous ships.

The potential for collisions between automated ships and other vessels, particularly smaller vessels, must be addressed as well. For the most part, larger vessels have tracking devices as opposed to smaller vessels.

Another consideration involves the ability to react to an environmental disaster in a timely fashion. Environmental disaster mitigation crews may be hundreds of miles away if an incident occurs on the high seas that involves a fire or hazardous material spill of some nature. As well, sufficient provision to effectively handle and counteract cybersecurity threats – such as a manipulated GPS signal – must be included in an overall strategy for implementing an unmanned, autonomous shipping system.

There are also navigational considerations to think about when traversing congested routes and entering ports. Severe storm conditions may also pose a significant threat to the automated shipping model unless the technology is robust enough to match challenging situations.

During the initial years of implementing autonomous, unmanned shipping into maritime routes, many ships traveling along coastal paths may be controlled from the shore. In the initial stages, autonomous ships may operate on shorter regional routes, with larger-scale global autonomous shipping gradually increasing over time as the regulatory, infrastructure, and technology pieces are resolved and eventually implemented.

Contact an Experienced Houston Maritime Accident Lawyer

If a maritime accident has left you with a severe injury, it’s important to obtain the legal representation you need to ensure your right to compensation is upheld. At The Krist Law Firm, P.C., our injury lawyers know how to maneuver your claim through the system effectively and fight for the recovery you need.

Call our team today at (281) 283-8500, or contact us online to set up a free, no obligation consultation about your case.