By now the general public is well versed in the continuing development of autonomous vehicles. The media seems to provide stories, almost on a daily basis, on the advances of these self-driving cars and taxis. Perhaps less well known is the progress of technology in shipping vessels which is only just beginning to come to the fore. In this article commercial shipping lawyer, Anastasia Papadopoulou looks at the opportunities and challenges innovation in this area may encounter.

Technological developments in the shipping and logistics sector are ever increasing. Huge investments have been made in the creation of next generation of vessels: unmanned ships, robotics and automation of navigation and propulsion systems, battery-powered ships and futuristic superyachts. Exceptional efforts have also been made into the improvement of interaction with onshore managers, real-time communications, drone-assisted systems that address peril at sea, situational awareness systems, and inventions to make certain parts of the ships autonomous, such as the engine rooms.

It is predicted that by the end of this decade, technological advances such as these will start transforming shipping. With regard to unmanned ships and robotics, the challenge will be to accurately code all the historical experiences, as well as ongoing data, into a machine and with the assistance of applied artificial intelligence, to allow this machine to make autonomous decisions. It is believed that strong artificial intelligence companies will lead in this transition, while smaller technology companies will either grow in line with the overall developments or form part of the initiatives led by the stronger players.

It is also expected that the majority of the shipping world will be slow to adapt. While certain segments may not adapt at all, such as passenger ferries, cruise ships or those carrying dangerous cargo, companies may still be prone to test such vessels in coastal waters or in very confined areas. Few of the big players will adapt and the practical consequences of any such development to the seaborne trade remain to be seen.

Technological advances in shipping are only part of a wider supply-chain transformation, while this supply chain is controlled by only a handful of shipping companies. In the transportation industry, developments in autonomous trucking, electronic bills of lading and electronic freight forwarding are here to stay. These concepts are so mature that companies have already invested in developing decentralised blockchain-based shipping logistics products. Advances in hardware and internet of things have created ‘smart’ containers with integrated battery recharging systems to alert an onshore operation of their location, status and temperature of the cargo.

The biggest challenge is the criteria by which AI machines act in case of emergency when more than one object is in peril and the speed of response in such cases. There are also concerns over the trustworthiness and transparency of the companies controlling such technologies as well as the threat of cyber-attacks. In a world of smarter technologies, it is vital to consider how this unmanned trend will impact the employment and mental health of the seafarers if fewer crew members are required.

An additional challenge is the legal reshuffle that such dramatic changes require. From the basic definition of a “ship”, to insurance covers, ship management contracts and charterparties, bills of lading, flagging requirements, IMO regulations, SOLAS rules and International Codes, the legal shipping industry will need an overall change of course.