Autonomous ships

Aug. 17 2018

Autonomous shipping gets a mixed press. While some sectors of the industry believe smart technology will transform their business, many shipping companies are reluctant to invest in unproven - and risky - technology. We explain the opportunities and risks – and how Bureau Veritas is working to help clients transition to smarter shipping.

Autonomous… or just smart?

Do autonomous ships already exist? The answer is yes – and no. Some small autonomous military ships and survey vessels are already in use. But large merchant ships have yet to move beyond a basic level of autonomy, citing high costs and concerns about cyber and operational risk as obstacles to adoption. Moreover, autonomous does not necessarily imply unmanned.

Ship autonomy levels are categorized on a scale (see diagram): as the level of autonomy increases, so the need to have crew onboard is reduced. Today’s cyber-enabled commercial ships are typically at level 1.

Smart Ships Scale

This is why any discussion of autonomous shipping needs a dose of realism: while smaller vessels such as OSVs may reach levels 2-3 in the next few years, large merchant vessels are realistically more likely to reach level 1 – and this is already a major step compared to where they are now.



Owners bullish on smart technology tend to cite its potential to improve efficiency. By investing in smart technology – and in the future, artificial intelligence to enable fully autonomous decision-making – owners can manage fuel consumption, reduce crew, and improve profitability. Indeed, streamlining of onboard organization is among the many goals of Bureau Veritas’ partnership with Bourbon focusing on advanced automation of dynamic positioning systems.

But we would argue strongly that the number one benefit of increasing ship autonomy is safety. If we look at the automotive industry, introduction of electronic driver-assist systems such as lane-departure warning and blind-spot detection systems have cut road accidents and fatalities (source: IHCC ). In shipping, more than 75 percent of accidents on ships are caused by human error. The use of sensors to collect data, and systems to process it and provide operational guidance reduces the likelihood of accidents, damage and polluting spills. Aside from that, unmanned operations reduce the risk of exposing crew to hazardous situations.

Gijsbert de Jong

We would argue strongly that the number one benefit of increasing ship autonomy is safety.

Gijsbert de Jong Marine Marketing & Sales Director

What exactly are the risks?

Autonomous ships need to achieve a safety level equivalent to conventional ships. This is hard to define as much of what the industry defines as “safe” is built on historic knowledge and lessons learned from accidents.

At a basic level, autonomous ships must comply with relevant regulations (i.e. SOLAS, MARPOL, COLREG and STCW). Operational risks for autonomous ships are generally similar to conventional ships, but with risk transferred from crew to sensors and cyber-physical systems. Autonomous ships must be able to achieve navigate without colliding with other vessels, taking into account traffic and unexpected situations. They must be able to maneuver and remain stable, and withstand unauthorized physical or virtual trespassing. Reducing or removing crew puts increased demands on system reliability and security. It also has implications for cargo management in terms of cargo securing and monitoring.

The marine industry is a relatively late developer in terms of smart technology. At Bureau Veritas we have developed an approach to address risks in autonomous shipping, based on our experience in Automotive and Aerospace, two other sectors in which the Group operates.

Gijsbert de Jong Marine Marketing & Sales Director


Bureau Veritas Guidelines for Autonomous Shipping

In addition to class notations addressing cyber security, Bureau Veritas has developed a structured approach to risk and reliability for autonomous ships.  Our Guidelines for Autonomous Shipping cover three main areas:

  1. A risk and technology assessment including identification and analysis of risks and how they could be mitigated
  2. Functionality of autonomous systems, defining minimum levels for essential systems and providing goal-based recommendations
  3. Reliability of autonomous systems, including recommendations on design and performance levels. A quality assurance methodology is also provided.

    They are built on expertise built by Bureau Veritas in other sectors, leverage our longstanding expertise in identifying, analyzing and mitigating all types of risk, and refer to established regulatory frameworks such as BIMCO and NSIT for cyber security, as well as Bureau Veritas class notations.

    The Guidelines are applied within the scope of the Autonomous Shipping JIP. The Dutch project, facilitated by trade association Netherlands Maritime Technology (NMT), aims at staging a demonstration of an autonomous crew transfer vessel (CTV), provided by Damen Shipyards, in 2018-19. The demonstration is part of a two-year program being run by a 17-strong consortium including Bureau Veritas.

What next for autonomous shipping?

Innovation projects such as the JIP, or Bureau Veritas’ smart shipping partnership with Bourbon are interesting because they show the potential for autonomous shipping. The issue for most owners remains cost: until there is a clear efficiency benefit that outweighs initial investment, most will be reticent to commit. Nevertheless, as with other new technologies, “not now” does not mean “never”. And if autonomous shipping is some way off, smart shipping is here to stay.