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Wednesday, November 27, 2019 

A study across six territories (United Kingdom, United States, Australia, China, Singapore and Hong Kong) suggests the UK is one of the least supportive nations for autonomous shipping.

The report, published by law firm Kennedys, polled over 6,000 people as well as gaining insights from key industry leaders in the transport and insurance sectors. Fewer than one fifth of UK respondents said that they were comfortable with the idea of autonomous vessels (18%). This places the UK as the second least supportive of autonomous ships out of the six regions surveyed, behind only Hong Kong. In China, percentage support was more than double the UK, with 48% of respondents feeling at least somewhat comfortable.

The main reason for their concern is safety (67%), with respondents specifically placing trust in human judgement over computers (63%).

Following discussions with maritime market practitioners, Kennedys identified some of the key benefits and challenges presented by autonomous adoption. The exacting regulatory standards imposed on ships by the IMO and the Flag State will pose a challenge around connectivity between ships and shore, particularly for OEMs.

Autonomy at sea is an opportunity to help international shipping meet environmental concerns and regulations. Autonomous technology can help the gathering of additional data on engine performance, enabling ship owners to identify parts that may need repairing or replacing before they fail. This helps reduce time in dry-docks while improving performance and safety levels.

One of the key concerns around automation in the maritime sector is the impact on employment: the shipping sector faces an existential challenge in the form of an ageing workforce with younger generations showing less interest to spend months away from home at sea. Incorporating autonomous technology in ship construction can help to reduce the potential for skills shortages in future. Furthermore, the ability for technology to replace labour could provide major cost savings.

The market raises a number of key practical considerations: weather conditions and navigation into port may require manual control, while enabling high-speed internet connection at sea to control and monitor vessels is costly and difficult.

Michael Biltoo (pictured), Partner at Kennedys, said: “The challenges that face the maritime sector are particular and exacting: from multi-national regulatory frameworks to barriers of data transfer while off-shore, achieving the consensus necessary to facilitate global fleets of automated ships will be crucial in achieving marine autonomy. However, the benefits are clear and, ultimately, crucial: if shipping is to achieve the ever-tightening environmental standards set by a range of regulatory bodies, a far more data-driven approach to maritime logistics is absolutely necessary. Greater automation in the sector is inevitable: there now needs to be a clear call-to-action on governments to create modern legal frameworks providing appropriate protocols on the behaviours of vehicle technology.

“If we are to achieve the public trust necessary, solutions need to also be provided around the storage, usage and sharing of the masses of data which will be collected by the next generation of autonomous vessels. This will require a collaborative approach across government, vessel manufacturers, software developers, insurers, law enforcement and consumer groups.”

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