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Deepsea autonomous ships unlikely for at least a generation: Maritime CEO Forum

Deepsea shipping is unlikely to become autonomous in the next 20 to 30 years delegates attending yesterday’s Maritime CEO Forum in Hong Kong were told.

During a busy crewing and human resources session that touched upon crew abandonment, connectivity, and attracting Gen Y into shipping, a significant portion of discussion focused on the issue of autonomous shipping.

The chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping, Esben Poulsson, said regulation would lag innovation and that he did not expect to see deepsea ships operating unmanned in his lifetime.

“I do not see the concept of a bulk carrier trading worldwide unmanned, certainly not in my lifetime,” Poulsson said. He noted that there had been around 80 VLCCs ordered this year, which will likely trade for 25 years during which time they will be fully crewed. Poulsson, who is also the president of the Singapore Shipping Association, pointed how airlines have been automated for more than a generation, but still feature four people in the cockpit.

Martin Cresswell, technical director at the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, concurred, saying ships would become more automated especially for maintenance, but not autonomous. The number of crew will likely reduce to just eight or nine going forward, Cresswell posited, something that could be a serious issue for the welfare of those onboard, especially for long journeys such as the 45-day transits from Brazil to China

Bjorn Hojgaard, CEO of shipmanagement giant Anglo-Eastern, put a 20 to 30 year timeframe on when autonomous ships will come around, while stressing that he felt that regardless many jobs onboard cannot be automated. “Even in a 20-year horizon, there might possibly be fewer people onboard but the business case for automomous ships is simply not there,” he said.

Warwick Norman, CEO of RightShip, said that the “exciting” part of the technologies being developed at the moment is that they can be transferred to existing ships. “Who honestly wants to do the 12 to four watch?” he said, suggesting that in the not too distant future signifant functions onboard could be transferred to machines. While Australian miners have shown the way with autonomous trucks and trains delivering raw materials for export, shipping remains a long way off technology-wise, the RightShip boss said. “The reliability of our current model is a long way from where we want it to be,” he said.

The Maritime CEO Forum took place in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Central, Hong Kong with sessions on tankers, bulkers and crewing.

The event was sponsored by Anglo-Eastern, Cobham, Dualog, DVB Bank, Liberian Registry, RightShip, Veritas Petroleum Services, and V.Ships Agency.

A more in depth feature on the crewing session will feature in the next issue of Maritime CEO magazine.


Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.
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