The Technological Holy Grail…Crewless ships

Huge budgets, the brightest brains, committed boardrooms and a queue of technology companies…welcome to the very human journey towards “unpeopled” ships. Where are we at, where are we going and what happens when we get there?


The world of transportation has never been more preoccupied or determined than it seemingly has about a transition to “crewless” or autonomous operation. Shipping is no less evangelical when it comes to the issue, and we seem to discuss MASS (Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships) more often than your local church.

In fact, you might be surprised to learn that the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO) discussed the matter as far back as 1964. Which is pretty amazing when you think about it. It also probably raises concerns too, as it shows that there have been unrealistic expectations, hopes and dreams for over 50 years.

Back in 1964, MSC VIII (March 1964) This definition refers to “those processes in which machines -often including electronic controls — adjust and control their own performance with little or no human intervention, once the operation has started.”

This means that before many of us started our working lives, the issue of crewless ships was a looming light over the horizon. Perhaps we should be surprised that it has taken so long to reach where we are today. However, despite seemingly slow progress, we have come a long way. The maritime industrial revolution has seen us move from pieces of rope to hold the wheel on a course, through to the first autopilot, then on through Unmanned Machinery Spaces and Integrated Navigation Systems. The wins have been hard-fought, but each has shaped shipping and seafaring in a new way as it has taken root.


It wasn’t until decades later that things got really focused, and the IMO agreed to work on a “Regulatory scoping exercise for the use of MASS”, with a target completion year of 2020. There was some tinkering with the definition, but the premise remained, “a ship which, to a varying degree, can operate independent of human interaction”. They also worked on a framework with degrees of autonomy.

The legislative work was slowed by the COVID pandemic, as we might expect. Now it seems is the time and now in 2021 we are set to hear the report back to the IMO on the foundations for the future development of a regulatory framework for MASS. Which is part of the 103rd session of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC).

The Committee will consider the outcome of a regulatory scoping exercise on MASS carried out over the last couple of years and identify priorities for further work. Which is a very exciting time, and the culmination of over half a century of development, dreaming and daring.

There are perhaps two major hurdles for the use of crewless transport, whether in the sea, on land or up in the air. There is the practical, but also the philosophical debate to be had. The practical is relatively simple, we’ve long had the kit to do what is needed. The sensors to measure, the circuits to process, the actuators to actually do things. Throw in new connectivity solutions, and we’re pretty much there. The real complexity arises from peripheral, but nevertheless important problems, not the practical.


Much of the IMO work has been to identify gaps, themes and common issues, understanding what the implications of going crewless really means. Which in the world of the IMO, means will the kit play nicely with others. Will MASS be able to work in a world of people and existing rules?

What they don’t get embroiled with is the philosophical musings on issues such as risk, liability, and commerciality. What does it mean for the role of the Master, crew or responsible persons? Where does the buck stop when things go wrong? Who makes the cash when they go right?

Is the coder the new OOW? Is the algorithm the Chief and Master? Is the data centre the new Designated Person Ashore? You get the idea? Where do the new crewless lines of responsibility and accountability stop and start? At the moment the human element is about a “monitoring infrastructure” and the “system-human interface”.

There is still a seeming hope that the buck will still stop with some form of human engagement. The ship will do its thing, until that thing is seen to be wrong…ultimately by a person. There are some demands that will of course always be called into question and a machine or AI will struggle with, such as the obligation to render assistance. Will a ship make its own call? Will it be programmed to always turn and rush to the call of distress? Or will we see people make that call? You can imagine the chaos caused by a hoax Mayday as hundreds of crewless ships all rush to assist.


Insurance will be a key consideration, and it is the mechanism that ultimately allows modern, commercial shipping to exist. Taking the risks and spreading them, meaning you didn’t have to be a King, Queen or Prince to suck up the risks. Anyone daring enough and up for a marine adventure could take a piece of the action and hope to get the rewards.

Underwriting is a form of gambling, albeit a respectable one for the cleverest boys and girls. The money is made because there is uncertainty. If everyone knew that the success of the voyage was a sure thing, then we’d all pump money in, and thus the rewards would either be too diluted…or we’d all get stung. If there is no money, there is no market. No market means no cover — so will we be back to self insuring?

MASS will have an effect on the issue of insurance and liabilities. Quite to what extent is beyond even the guessing of the IMO. From a positive position, it is hoped that removing the reason for human error will eradicate those kinds of things going wrong. It is a nice assumption, but people have a habit of still being able to fudge up from a distance.

Anyway, that will leave cargo, ship and pollution claims. The way insurance is priced is based on historical data, and that will be an initial hurdle. How will the cover and risk transfer be priced?


Ok, once the costs have been modelled there is still the thorny issue of the current rules simply not being fit for MASS consumption. From collision rules (COLREGS) down through concepts such as “seamanship”.

There are problems to be addressed, and big, complex issues to be solved. As an example, even the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) will need amending, as it currently says all ships should have a Master and Officers.

Indeed, the human side of the equation is pivotal. There are issues of crew competency, and this is a major pillar of existing seaworthiness, which in turn is the foundation on which much of the maritime rules, regulations and responsibility rests.

What happens when the first crewed and crewless ship collision happens? And it will happen…

Who do the shipowners seek to recover from? The software developers? Will coders become criminalised and hunted down? What would Egypt do had Suez been blocked by an autonomous ship? Someone, somewhere, somehow would be hung out to dry.


The technology is ready, the systems primed, the test vessels are zig zagging their way around harbours and even across oceans. The MASS revolution is capable of taking off, and there will be benefits. It is just not 100% certain what they will yet be? Cheaper transport? Cleaner ships? Faster? More efficient?

We can guess where the benefits need to be derived, but there is one hard truth that also has to be considered. Much of shipping below certain blue-chip levels is done by companies who are, (lets be kind), cost conscious. They rail against new spares, they count the beans that are fed to the crew, they are aware of the cost of everything and the value to them.

One of the problems of MASS is that technology is actually more demanding than people. Yes of course a computer doesn’t get tired and need a kip, but it does demand certain operational parameters. It does need the temperature to be right, the cable connections to be clean, and the ambient conditions to be hunky dory. Where seafarers have proved their value and mettle in the past has been that they work above and beyond, they get the job done. They are often victims of their own pragmatism and willingness to do all possible to get the ship where it needs to be and when.

An unhappy crewed ship will plough on, an unhappy crewless ship is likely to down tools. MASS isn’t a cheap or low maintenance option. We have to ask, indeed demand that the MASS of the future is half the seafarer of our people of the past and today. While shipowners need to be sure they maintain, support and embrace the technology more readily than some have helped their people.



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Captain Stu

Making maritime informatics all it can and should be…asking questions, and finding answers.