Building a future with autonomous shipping

Building a future with autonomous shipping

Alexander Pinskiy, head of industry association MARINET, explains the long-term vision of the a-Navigation (autonomous navigation) project, its use in 2021, and ways in which the International Maritime Organization (IMO) can implement autonomous navigation on a global scale.

Although autonomous shipping is becoming increasingly popular and much of the technology is already in place, we have yet to achieve global adoption of this kind of operations. It is obvious that the lack of a clear long-term approach to autonomous shipping has been the main obstacle to the use of MASS (maritime autonomous surface ships) and this is something that we, at MARINET and along with our partners, have attempted to address through our A-Navigation project. We have been rather successful with our vessel trials in Russia and have even received approval for wide implementation of this navigation system in the coming year. Furthermore, we have put together a long-term vision for implementation of regulation and technical solutions that will be necessary to bring this project to fruition.

There is currently a fearful atmosphere about the presumed dangers of uncrewed ships driven by an uncontrolled AI, the possibilities of technical errors and hacker attacks, or even the dodging of legal responsibility and proper maintenance – but this has little to do with our modern reality. The evolution of technology is systematic and, just as one needs to evolve from air balloons to planes before finally landing on the moon, the process of arriving at the future of robotic ships requires advancing through multiple steps.

Our planned roadmap supposes three stages of autonomous shipping development: coexistence, separation, and prominence.

It is important to remember that it is already common for many ships to have unattended machine rooms with remote control and even maintenance systems. These technologies are based on the same mature solutions developed by major machinery manufacturers for a variety of heavy industries, of which maritime is one such enterprise. They were smoothly and rapidly implemented in international maritime regulation and in class rules, based on proven standards in other industries with more or less similar operations.

However, the next step (i.e. automatic and remote control of ship navigation) requires more specific solutions, which cannot be imported to the maritime industry in the same way from autonomous metro trains or smart cars. Instead, our industry has been innovative and there have been a number of technological experiments proving the ongoing availability of these technologies from 2017 onwards: Rolls Royce trials on Svitzer Hermod and Falco ferries, Wartsila trials on Highland Chieftain and Folgefonn, ABB trials on Suomenlinna II, Iris Leader voyage by NYK and others.

In contrast to machinery automation, these solutions didn’t come from technology laboratories to shipping companies. Having spent my entire career working in the technology industry, I strongly believe that new technologies are driven by consumers rather than scientific labs or technology companies.

So the aim of our a-Navigation project is to take the first practical step of bringing this type of operations to shipping companies. While it may still have many limitations and is not aimed to create an immediate revolutionary effect, it is the only way in which we can develop new technologies.

Our planned roadmap is one that offers simple and gradual practical first steps that supposes three stages of autonomous shipping development: coexistence, separation, and prominence.


At the ‘coexistence’ stage, we envision automatic and remotely controlled vessels being operated along with the ongoing use of traditional vessels and—as an obvious consequence—within the framework of the existing regulation. The main driver of a-Navigation use at this stage is improving safety; that is, to reduce the impact of the human factor while simultaneously increasing control over the work of the crew on board by shipping companies. At the same time, automation of routine functions and better situational awareness and control will reduce the burden on crewmembers and the required manning on board vessels.

The main barrier at this stage is the coexistence of MASS with traditional ships, and we have addressed this by using the developed principle of Comprehensive Functional Equivalence (CFE). This implies the fulfillment in automatic and remote mode of those functions that are now prescribed to be performed by a human on board per the current regulation. This is strictly regulated and is in an amount not less than that provided for the crew on board, making CFE the common denominator for MASS and traditional vessels. On one hand, it guarantees that MASS, when interacting with other actors, are guided by and perform well-known and mandatory functions, while on the other hand, it allows the operation of MASS within the framework of the current international regulation as is without requiring change.

A key role at this stage will definitely be played by high-tech shipping companies, since they will mostly benefit from a-Navigation. They are likely to have existing modern, well-automated fleets with well-paid crew on board and can afford to pay for the new technology, which will be—much like any other new technology—expensive in the beginning and cheaper as it becomes more widely used.

However, I’m fairly sure that most countries will subsidise and stimulate a-Navigation implementation at this first stage until the necessary economies of scale are achieved – as was the case with green technologies. Thus, there are likely to be economic benefits available for shipping companies. Moreover, one of our project features is that we leverage today’s common technologies and equipment to minimise cost at the outset: we utilise current mandatory systems and combine them with simple and affordable equipment like digital cameras or satcoms.


In this stage, we envision that the increase in MASS numbers and areas of operation will lead to the emergence of new shipping lines and geographical regions where autonomous ships will be primarily used. At this point, it would be natural for certain water areas and traffic separation systems to be designated as only or mainly for autonomous ships as this will reduce any risks associated with MASS interactions with unpredictable and poorly controlled crewed ships. It will also offer further opportunities to transfer functions from human to computing systems and remove some of the current regulation requirements. The reduction of these requirements together with economies of scale will lead to further operation cost reductions for MASS.

Separation would also spur the creation of new specific forms of organisation, such as control centres or services for MASS based on e-Navigation, such as advanced vessel traffic management systems. Infrastructure of this nature should provide direct data exchange between ships and dispatch from national and global monitoring systems. The existing NAVAREA areas managed by maritime administrations might serve as a basis for the areas of responsibility for MASS operation.

There will also be opportunities for the adoption of special regulations for MASS in these zones, though this will not be based on the CFE principle or on current maritime regulation. The new regulations will reflect the capabilities and specifics of computer systems and a-Navigation. As a result, we will see a new model of maritime transport, which can be likened to the “transport model” in multi-story buildings, i.e. separation between automatic elevators and stairs for pedestrians. In this analogy, MASS represents elevators moving in separated shafts, access to which is limited, and which operate according to rigidly defined rules. They transport people and goods en-masse in predetermined zones. By contrast, traditional ships would act like pedestrians, who can use stairs for non-determined movement, i.e. they can use the rest of the water area for navigation, where there is no threat of unwanted interaction with autonomous vehicles. At the same time, their access is limited in the area of MASS ​​application.

The main driver of MASS development at this stage is the increased efficiency of logistics through a further expansion of cost-effective MASS, development of a united smart transport complex based on a-Navigation and e-Navigation, and the development of a MASS network with zero risk of incidents. The obvious primary challenge at this stage will be the creation of infrastructure and the harmonisation of national and corporate standards for both, a-Navigation and e-Navigation. This means that work on these new standards and regulation should be a priority by the first stage of MASS development.


At the final stage of development called prominence, zones of MASS operation will be expanded and will cover all major transport routes globally. Both the model and regulation of maritime transport will be focused on MASS, and traditional ships will become an exception. The overwhelming majority of seafarers will work either in navigation control centres or in emergency teams, which will also radically change the quality of working conditions and push crew-driven ships further to the periphery.

Since transportation by MASS will be cheaper and safer, older ships will naturally move to niches where MASS use is likely to be impossible or economically unprofitable. These may include areas with a small volume of traffic, or regions with extremely unpredictable weather and climatic conditions. To return to the analogy of elevators and stairs, it is rare that someone will climb the stairs to the 20th floor if there is an elevator available, but it makes no economic sense to install an elevator in a two-story building. At the same time, emergency systems such as ladders—i.e. the possibility and presence of the human controls on ships—will remain for rare situations in the same way that stairs for evacuation in case of fire are mandatory in multistorey building.

At this final stage, we will see futuristic robotic ships with absolutely new design connected into the global intelligent logistics network. Despite not having a crew on board at all, they will not cause fear as something obscure and dangerous but will become a symbol of safety and reliability.

However, to reach this final stage of prominence, we must begin with a first step. As has been said before, “one small step for man…”

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