Smart Ship

Autonomous ships

What is an autonomous ship?

“Autonomous ship” is a broad term. In fact, ships may have one or several autonomous onboard functions: some may be operated remotely from shore, and some fully autonomously. A fully autonomous ship would be able to carry out its routine operations using automated systems, without human intervention. There are few such vessels today, and for most autonomy remains a matter of degrees.

Autonomous shipping is still in its infancy, but as the maritime world becomes increasingly digitalized and connected, ship owners should understand its potential benefits.

What are the benefits of autonomous ships?

The key benefit of an autonomous ship is in its increased safety, which stems simply from reducing the human error factor. With high degrees of automation and enhanced support for decision making, smaller crews operate smarter ships, which also tend to be safer ships. There are areas in which technology can prove more accurate than human senses, for example using object detection based on sensor fusion, rather than the traditional look-out.

In the coming years, however, ships will continue to have crews on board, with automated systems increasingly lending support in their operation of the vessel.


Head of Digital & Autonomous Ships Rules

Bureau Veritas M&O

Autonomy is a complicated concept, and autonomous ships still sound like sci-fi to many. We cannot ignore, however, that the shipping industry is becoming increasingly digital and connected, and autonomous ships will be part of that transition. Over this journey there are two key challenges we will have to contend with: ensuring high-quality data to enable autonomous ships to make the right decisions, and ensuring adequate connectivity.

What is the difference between autonomy and automation?

The concept of autonomy contains varying degrees of autonomy – and the shipping industry has yet to settle on a framework to define them. At Bureau Veritas, we determine autonomy based on two factors: the degree of automation and the degree of control.

The degree of automation represents the degree of decision making (authority) deferred by the human to the system. It is a way to make a distinction between the human and the system’s roles as the system performs various functions. The impact of a system error will be predominant for a high degree of automation, whereas the impact of a human error will prevail for a low degree, reaching 81.1%.  

BV identifies four degrees of automation in its NI 641 Guidelines for Autonomous Shipping: 

  • A0 for systems operated by a human
  • A1 for systems directed by a human
  • A2 for systems delegated by a human
  • A3 for systems supervised by a human
  • A4 for fully automated systems that only require human intervention in case of emergency

The gradual transfer of control between the workstations on board and the remote operations center is described by the four degrees of direct and remote control.

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What kind of autonomous ships already exist?

So far, autonomous shipping has mainly been of interest to naval vessels. There are also unmanned surface vessels (USVs) that make use of this technology, such as small hydrographic survey ships. Right now, rather than fully autonomous ships, we are seeing increasing numbers of smarter ships with automated systems enabled for intermittent remote control from shore.

How does Bureau Veritas support the development of autonomous ships?

Dedicated notations and guidelines

Autonomous shipping is an unfamiliar territory for many owners who may require guidance and support. In 2017, Bureau Veritas published its NI 641 Guidelines for Autonomous Shipping, which were later revised in 2019. These guidelines focus on four key areas:

  • The scope and definition of autonomy
  • Risk and technology assessment
  • The minimum levels of functionality recommended for essential systems
  • The reliability of autonomous systems onboard

Additionally, Bureau Veritas has developed SMART notations to help the shipping industry navigate through the different levels of ship connectivity, up to fully autonomous vessels.

Supporting regulatory developments

A particularity of autonomous shipping is that the technological maturity is far ahead of the regulatory framework. Regulating increasingly connected or remotely operated ships poses several challenges. To name but one: the case of a remotely operated ship raises questions as to which national regulations it should be subject to – those of the region where its operating center is based, or those of the flag of the ship.

Bureau Veritas has been working with the IMO as support of the French flag delegation on these topics since 2017. We are involved in the working group established to develop the future Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) Code.

Additionally, we are deeply involved in the work of other bodies to develop the scope and terminology for regulating autonomous shipping technology. Such bodies include the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the International Naval Safety Association (INSA).

Helping ensure cyber security

The IACS Unified Requirements (UR) covering cyber security – UR 26 and UR 27 – provide a preliminary step in ensuring cyber security on today’s vessels. However, they will need to be updated to account for a fully autonomous ship.

Bureau Veritas is already moving to bridge this regulatory gap with its CYBER SECURE notation. This is our highest standard of cyber security, and is required for all autonomous ships.

Autonomous ships FAQ

  • Does autonomous shipping mean we will not have crews?

    In a word, no. Crews will not be automized out of existence – but autonomous shipping will change the nature of their work. Crews of an autonomous ship may spend less time at sea and adapt to onshore roles in remote operations centers.

  • When will autonomous ships be widespread?

    As things stand, we should not expect to see many fully autonomous vessels crossing our seas for a least a decade. While the technology exists, the regulatory framework is not yet unready to accommodate them. Furthermore, at this stage, many companies do not have a fully realized digital ambition, nor the necessary know-how to move in that direction.

  • Are autonomous ships more sustainable?

    Autonomous ships are not by nature “more sustainable” than others. However, depending on the data they are collecting and the effectiveness of the use of learnings from that data, their overall operational efficiency may increase. This might include fuel efficiency, thus reducing emissions from that vessel.

  • Can any ship become autonomous?

    In theory, many ship types could be autonomous. Clear candidates would be those operating fixed short voyages close to the coast or inland. A vessel’s suitability for autonomous operation will depend on a host of different contributing factors. 

  • How can I ensure cyber security on an autonomous ship?

    At its base, maintaining cyber security on an autonomous ship relies on the same thing as on a less connected vessel: constant vigilance.

    That being said, the more connected a vessel is, the wider the potential surface of attack for cyber criminals. Autonomous vessel owners will need a robust strategy for mapping their systems, and assessing, mitigating and managing threats.