The LexGaze Weekly - COVER STORY

Autonomous ships and the positive changes in the shipping industry

Ms Eirini Sakellari

Sept 28, 2020

Issue 15

The evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has significantly affected countless industries. The transportation sector and more specifically the marine industry is not an exception. ‘Intelligent’ surface vessels, whose control system mimics the way the human brain works, operating with full autonomy internationally is a prospect more realistic than ever before, promising to revolutionise the shipping industry. It is crucial to identify whether autonomous surface vessels are ships according to international maritime law. It is supported that since they will have the appropriate shape (under the English law) and being used in transportation, autonomous ships do not conflict with the definition of a ship (UNCLOS). They are subject to international shipping law rules as are traditionally manned ships and share the same obligations and liberties.

The possible widespread use of autonomous vessels internationally in the foreseeable future raises concerns about whether such vessels can bring many positive changes in the shipping industry. As it is evident, the more autonomous ships go at sea, the fewer seafarers will be required. As in any other industry, AI allows tech-related roles to be created but also massively replaces humans who were once required for a business to operate. However, after thorough consideration, one will realise that autonomous ships bring advantages with them too.

Not risking human life

Having no crew onboard puts no one at risk. Life at sea is well known for its adversity with the history of shipping mourning countless human lives lost due to accidents or weather conditions. In cases of piracy, in particular, pirates will find nobody onboard to take as a hostage, while the design of autonomous will thwart pirates from getting on board, as relevant projects reveal (such as MUNIN, AAWA, ReVolt). Additionally, a ship without a crew may be more capable than manned ships to assist other ships or people in distress while at sea. In perilous circumstances that would be too dangerous for a manned ship to do, however, unmanned ships could more easily approach those in danger and let them board. This is because they do not risk human lives when deciding to render assistance, in compliance with the International Convention on Salvage 1989.

Economic advantages

Autonomous ships have many financial advantages for the shipowners and charterers. To begin with, the absence of crew onboard autonomous ships will render crew facilities of existing manned ships useless. Therefore, after rearranging the ship's interior, more loading capacity will be available for the cargo per voyage. Moreover, the absence of crew facilities gives the ship designers the freedom to design vessels which are not identical to the vessels as we know them today. Ships which are less air resistant are among the models of autonomous ships which have been designed. As a result, the fuel consumption will be lowered. Additionally, any crew related costs will be a great relief for their current employers, as they will be saving massive amounts of money. As such costs stand the crew wages and the conservation of crew facilities onboard. Finally, no more costly mistakes will occur due to the human factor. The autonomous ship’s intelligent software and their efficient learning process as a group thanks to their access to Cloud in combination with sophisticated sensors, radars, and equipment in general, guarantee to avoid mistakes which a human would possibly make. Such mistakes usually cost massive amounts of money to the owners, who would warmly welcome such a prospect relief.

Ecological sustainability

As mentioned earlier, designers and shipbuilders participating in autonomous surface vessels projects have the liberty to design less air resistant ships. However, the concave shape of autonomous ships must be maintained as their physical resemblance to traditional ships is one of the main criteria which allow autonomous ships to be considered as ships under national regimes such as the English maritime law. In any case, the fuel required for an aerodynamic ship per voyage will be less than the fuel required per voyage of a traditional manned ship, as we know it. In addition, under the restrictions of international maritime authorities and the evolution of technology, projects of electric ships have been introduced to the shipping industry. The prospect of autonomous electric ships promises a far more sustainable shipping industry than the industry that stands today with a massively lowered environmental footprint. The ultimate environmental goal to be achieved would be to have autonomous all-electric ships, a prospect rather complex but promising.

In the foreseeable future, the widespread use of autonomous ships internationally is highly possible to become the norm. Organisations around the world have been examining and testing the efficiency, profitability, and environmental footprint of autonomous ships, with the findings of such projects being continuously renewed. The more progress is done in the field of autonomous ships the more information will come to light. The implications arising from the potential widespread use of autonomous ships can be found in many sectors. The disadvantages for the profession of the seafarers are well known and much discussed to this date. It would be of high importance though to take into consideration the advantages arising from the evolution of autonomous ships under the environmental, the financial and the moral scope. This would be the ideal way of embracing the changes arising in the shipping industry and welcoming autonomous ships on an international level.


Eirini Sakellari is a Greek national, with an LLB degree from Kapodistrian University, Athens. Having graduated from Greece, she moved to Birmingham, UK where she pursued her LLM from International Commercial Law from University of Birmingham. Owing to her inclination towards shipping, Tech Laws and Innovation, Eirini has undertaken her dissertation on the concept of autonomous ships within the broad framework of Maritime law. She aspires to pursue a solicitor’s career in the UK and is currently seeking an active role in the field of maritime law and shipping Industry.

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