Defining autonomy

The term ‘autonomous ship’ is mainly used to depict a self-sailing crewless vessel, but there are actually various degrees of autonomy. It is first important to distinguish between these levels of autonomy before commenting on when and why these vessels could start to become a reality. Lloyd’s Register has defined seven levels of autonomy (from AL 0 to AL 6 see box on page 3), which we have grouped as follows for simplicity:

  • Manned ship – traditional crewed vessel with a human operator making decisions
  • Remote ship – controlled by a human operator ashore
  • Automated ship – running pre-programmed software and can only operate within the scope of the algorithm
  • Fully autonomous ship – operating system can calculate consequences and risks, and make decisions by itself.

We are likely to see a steady transition from manned (AL 0), through the intermediate stages, to fully autonomous (AL 6) ships happening whilst the technology is tested and algorithms are improved through machine learning.

What types of ship will become autonomous first?

In our opinion the most likely initial applications for an autonomous ship will be in simple inland or coastal liner trades – mainly bulk carrier, passenger or roro ships. A good example would be a roro ferry operating across a Norwegian fjord. The waters are relatively calm and traffic-free, and the route is simple.

When will autonomous ships become a reality?

To use the most publicised example, the Yara Birkeland (an inland electric container ship) is expected start trading remotely in 2020 and fully autonomously by 2022, with the shipbuilding contract just recently signed. So, we are likely to see the technology in action within the next few years. However, the timeframe will vary hugely depending on the type of trade, trading pattern and, crucially, the level of autonomy being referred to.

What are the advantages?

The advantages of autonomous ships are plentiful. They eliminate human error, reduce crewing costs, increase the safety of life, and allow for more efficient use of space in ship design and efficient use of fuel. A threeyear research project by MUNIN (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks) predicted a saving of over $7m over a 25-year period per autonomous vessel in fuel consumption and crew supplies and salaries.

What are the disadvantages?

Despite the operational savings, there will be a large capital expenditure in initially investing in the technology, especially in the early stages of its development. This is not just for the ship itself, but also the setting-up of onshore operations to monitor fleet movements. There may also be incompatibilities between the current marine infrastructure and an unmanned vessel. Further, the lack of crew will make maintenance of moving parts incredibly difficult on long voyages and breakdowns could result in significant delays.


In our opinion, there is no viable economic benefit for a completely autonomous (AL6) ocean-going ship in the immediate future. Despite a belief in the technology, there will always be value in a human presence on board overseeing operations, the safety of the ship and the safety of the cargo. There will definitely be an application with small inland and coastal craft, but in a 20,000 TEU trans-Atlantic container ship we are only likely to see the lower levels of autonomy to aid the crew in navigation.


Above article was initially published at the September edition of Standard P&I Club's Technology Bulletin and is reproduced here with the author's kind permission. 

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.

About Callum O’Brien, Deputy Underwriter

Callum O’Brien is a Deputy Underwriter at Charles Taylor plc and working for the Standard Club as a Deputy Underwriter in the Europe Division. An active member of the club's Technology Working Group, he is researching technological advancements in the shipping and insurance industries. He has also been a Business Analyst Intern at MBA Polymers, Inc.