A survey of 220 marine industry executives from across the world also found that there is a lack of clarity around collisions involving unmanned ships, with 59% of survey respondents agreeing there is confusion surrounding the regulations in this area.

Current international shipping law states that vessels must be properly crewed, which means that unmanned ships are not presently permitted to enter international waters, explains Clyde & Co.

"The present state of SOLAS and collision avoidance regulations are being over taken by and holding back potentially industry-changing technology from being developed and implemented," comments Joe Walsh, Partner at Clyde & Co.

However, IMO announced in June of this year that it would begin to consider updating the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) to allow cargo ships with no captain or crew to travel between countries.

In addition, over two thirds (68%) of survey respondents fear that unmanned ships present a greater cyber-security risk than traditional ships. Clyde & Co and the IMarEST acknowledges that unmanned ships are likely to have a greater array of digital infrastructure than traditional ones, in order to ensure that ship owners and operators are able to control and track their ships remotely.

"...It is probably worth mentioning that the maritime industry as a whole has been criticised for being a bit slow in reacting to existing cyber threats, including fully crewed vessels and that the biggest threat to any organisation's cyber-security posture is still, in fact, human error. It is therefore possible that a transition to unmanned ships might actually reduce an organisation's profile and exposure to cyber risks, " further explains Mr.Walsh.

Another key issue according to the report is the availability of insurance cover for unmanned ships. Four of every five (80%) survey respondents think it is unclear how insurers will approach the new technology.

Clyde & Co points out that the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) has been discussing the implications of the new technology and expects unmanned vessels to change the landscape of the traditional maritime insurance industry.

Other key findings

  • Half (48%) of survey respondents predict unmanned ships will be implemented in the next 10-15 years.
  • Nearly two thirds (63%) believe that the industry is not at all prepared in terms of infrastructure requirements for unmanned ships
  • Half (51%) think that crews do not currently have the skill sets needed to operate and maintain unmanned ships.

The full Technology in Shipping report may be found here.