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How should ports prepare for autonomous shipping?

How should ports prepare for autonomous shipping?
Joe Baker 3 December 2018

The British Ports Association recently published a report in which it encouraged UK ports to consider the implications of autonomous ships on their operations. What challenges will ports face in preparing for autonomous ships in the future and what benefits they stand to gain from their adoption?

Autonomous shipping – the keynote topic of every maritime industry event for quite some time – is finally taking baby steps towards reality. However, major regulatory challenges still lie ahead.

In 2020, Norwegian shipbuilder VARD is set to deliver the Yara Birkeland, the world’s first autonomous electric container vessel. By the end of that year, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) hopes to have sussed out an essential framework for how regulations will be changed to accommodate autonomous vessels.

A key aspect of this will be how ports will need to adapt to welcome autonomous ships. In particular, the ways that unmanned vessels will berth and manoeuvre around ports – many of which might be densely trafficked – will be the subject of intense scrutiny.

In an IHS Fairplay article published at the end of 2017, a representative of the Port of Rotterdam expressed concern that ports were not adequately considering the role they will play in facilitating autonomous vessels. However, with the IMO giving a clearer framework for future regulation, the tides could soon be changing.

This September, the British Ports Association (BPA) published a report about the opportunities and challenges that UK ports will face with the arrival of autonomous ships. The study provides recommendations for consideration by the UK’s Department for Transport as part of its ongoing Maritime 2050 initiative.

Ports are already under pressure to adapt to a number of recent trends, including bigger ships, sustainability and climate change initiatives and smart concepts such as big data. But where do autonomous ships fit into the equation?
Short sea and coastal shipping

In May this year, the IMO announced that it had agreed on a four-pronged definition of so-called maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS), spanning vessels with limited crew on-board to none at all.

Using this definition, the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee is currently working on identifying and analysing the impact of MASS vessels on existing shipping regulations. This includes, for example, collision regulations (COLREG) and safety of life at sea (SOLAS) issues, many of which have been created on the assumption that ships are manned.