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International Forwarding Association Blog » Sea freight in Europe » Autonomous Technologies to Transform Maritime Shipping

Autonomous Technologies to Transform Maritime Shipping

Autonomous technologies are increasingly used in the maritime shipping industry, and advanced systems are currently under development. Manufacturers are in the process of developing super yachts, battery-powered ships, situation awareness systems, drone-assisted systems, and unmanned ships to name a few.

Autonomous and Semi-Autonomous Ships

Shipbuilding companies are in the process of developing fully autonomous ships that will operate and ship cargo without a crew. There are different levels of automation, and the first is to remotely operate and control ships from the shore. Fully automated ships, on the other hand, are equipped with advanced software that takes control over their movements.

The first autonomous ships will serve simple routes and will operate in waterways with little traffic and calm waters. Some companies are also working on autonomous technologies that can be used in existing ships to make them safer and more cost-efficient. Piloting assistance will be provided to crews to aid them in predicting and detecting the movement of other ships.


Benefits for Shipping Companies, Crews, and Voyagers

In addition to improved efficiency and safety, autonomous technologies will replace manual labor that often involves unsafe tasks and functions. A recent study reveals that up to 96 percent of accidents at sea are the result of human error. Advanced systems in semi-autonomous and fully autonomous ships are expected to improve safety and help avoid accidents due to poor judgment, insufficient experience, stress, and fatigue. This will make waterways safer for cargo and cruise ships and their crews.

This is especially important when it comes to ships that transport hazardous goods. Crews operating semi-autonomous ships will be able to make better decisions based on AI algorithms and advanced sensors. Obviously, automation also results in improved cost-efficiency as supplies, salaries, and other crew-related costs make for about 1/3 of the ship’s budget.  Reduction of the number of crew members also results in reduced insurance premiums and onboard provisions.


Autonomous technologies offer multiple benefits but also necessitate regulatory and legal changes. Additional challenges relate to changes to International Codes and SOLAS rules, IMO regulations, flagging requirements, bills of landing, charterparties and contracts, ship management, and insurance coverage. The development of criteria by which autonomous systems will perform in emergency situations is also a major challenge.

Some experts also voice concerns about the threat of cyber-attacks and the transparency of businesses that will monitor and control autonomous systems. Finally, in a world of advanced technologies, it is important to consider the impact of automation on the employment prospects of crews and their efficiency when fewer crew members operate ships. This especially holds for ships that are used for specialized transportation where more complex tasks are handled.

While the use of autonomous technologies in the maritime shipping sector will require legislative and administrative reshuffles, freight forwarders will benefit from improved efficiency, reduction of accidents, improved safety of life, and lower crew member costs. Additional benefits include improved fuel efficiency and more space to ship cargo.