How will autonomy shape the UK shipping industry?

A roundtable event organised by Thales, ‘Charting a course to autonomy - what is the future of the UK maritime industry?’ discussed the many challenges and future prospects of using AI and autonomous ships. Varsha Saraogi sums up the key takeaways.

Image courtesy of HiStockPhoto /

AI and autonomy

are disrupting every sector including the maritime industry. However, it’s no secret that it comes with its fair share of challenges - whether it’s the high costs involved or the infancy of the concept.
During a roundtable event moderated by Victor Chavez, the chief executive of Thales, autonomous ships – in the commercial sector as well as naval realm – were the focus of discussion. This included ensuring safety, getting adequate talent and funding, and adhering to government regulations. The panel discussed the ongoing trends and innovations in the sector and looked at what the future holds for using autonomy in ships. Here are the five key takeaways from the event.

Stuart Rivers, CEO of Sailors’ Society.
Image courtesy of Sailors’ Society

Autonomy is now a necessity for the maritime industry to “remain relevant"

While people have been talking about what autonomy might mean in the maritime industry for a few years, it has now become a necessity for the sector to progress. 

As James Fanshawe, chair of the UK’s maritime autonomous systems regulatory group puts it: “90% of trade by volume comes into the UK through the sea and making sure that trade can move around the world safely is something we must focus on.

Autonomy will be critical in the future and in developing the maritime industry so that it remains relevant for the next 50 years.”

Autonomy will be critical in developing the maritime industry so that it remains relevant for the next 50 years

Fanshawe detailed that for those entering the sector, it was necessary to see whether autonomy could be the answer to the many shipping woes. “The industry was quite a slow burner as a lot of people wanted to wait until other people went further down the track to see what opportunities this really presented,” he said at the roundtable. 

According to Fanshawe three main areas which will leverage the autonomous technology the most would be the marine scientific research industry, the oil and gas industry and defence. Given how much man-power is needed to operate the ships, it’s obvious now it would be ideal to automise them. It won’t need anyone to give instructions about where to go. 

“The gradual capabilities of the sensors and its ability to be integrated together is one of those areas of trying to be clever with technology,” he said.

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With autonomy comes the need for cybersecurity

While autonomy offers a solution to many issues facing the maritime industry, cybersecurity is one of the key challenges and countering cyberattacks is imperative for every shipping company. 
Professor Stephen Turnock from the Maritime Robotics Lab at the University of Southampton noted that the consequences of the failure to protect one’s data is much greater now than what it was in the past, Turnock noted.

“If you take an autonomous ship you can’t just look at the vessel, you’ve got to look at the control station,” he said. “We have seen very high profile phishing attacks against very large shipping companies. The world of autonomy has got to be as efficient if not more given how autonomous ships rely on technology in a variety of senses.”

How vessels will make sure their software is robust will be a major priority

Fanshawe added that autonomy could also be a solution as most cyberattacks are the result of human errors. “For instance, if someone goes on board and happens to update software and shoved a USB stick into the computer, the entire system could be infected,” he said. How vessels will make sure their software is robust will be a major priority and autonomy could remove human error.

Collaboration with government will be key for autonomous trade

It’s fair to say that the UK is not lagging behind in terms of autonomous ships as it deployed its first autonomous ship, SEA-KIT Maxlimer to Belgium in May this year carrying a box of oysters. Building on that Fanshawe said autonomous ships can be pivotal in trade as once programmed, they can run the operations and can be remotely controlled if need be.

Continued collaboration with the government will be essential

Continued collaboration with the government will be essential to ensure trade continues via autonomous vessels, Fanshawe said.

There is a possibility for larger ships bigger than 18m to be used for trading so more SMEs can capitalise on the shipping industry for business. This is one of the factors which will also drive more potential young maritime engineers as the industry is facing a lack of talent, said Turnock.

Autonomy will be essential for reducing carbon emissions

One of the main goals for the ship industry is the need to reduce maritime emissions. “If we can take goods to a position where it’s the closest to where it’s needed we can start to reduce road transport and of course that means less carbon emissions,” Fanshawe added. “And autonomy makes this easier and more efficient by enabling massive fuel savings.”

“Autonomous vessels in large numbers are at sea and massive amount of work is going on to ensure they are being [operated] safely as they did yesterday and probably more so in the future,” he continued.

A massive amount of work is going on to ensure [autonomous vessels] are being [operated] safely

In fact, it was said that reducing emissions was a goal not just for commercial trade but also for naval ships. 

Given how the IMO has set targets to reduce emissions by 50% by 2050 compared to 2008, it will become a priority for ships that are being manufactured going forward.

Autonomy can save lives

Another area where autonomy will benefit the maritime industry will be by reducing accidents caused by human error.

“They are certainly going to be using these technologies like radios and visual technologies to reduce the potential for accidents to happen,” said Fanshawe. 

“Whether you want to do quick inspections or make sure your premises are secure, there are excellent examples of what unmanned surface vehicles (UAVs) can do.”

Autonomous ships will be programmed to identify and recognise objects, such as navigation aids

Autonomous ships will be programmed to identify and recognise objects, such as navigation aids and other vessels around the ship, improving situational awareness and increasing safety.

“Specifically, the technology will provide data from environmental sound recordings and satellite navigation,” said Fanshawe.