Skip to main content
Horizons article 14 April 2021

The rapid pace of autonomous technology applications in shipping

  • Maritime energy transition
  • Digital transformation
Issue 57

LR’s Principal Specialist, Assurance of Autonomy, Tony Boylen, examines some of the opportunities and challenges in assuring autonomous systems as the technology develops.

With a 260-year history, LR has been witness to all of the key technological shifts which now underpin ship design and commercial operation today. But at no time in its long history has it faced such a fundamental step change as the accelerating drive towards greater autonomy and, ultimately, possibly even the commissioning of autonomous vessels.

However, assuring the quality and safety of an asset and complex operating systems that have not existed before is an unprecedented challenge. In the first instance, it’s not even about assuring the asset… it’s about assuring the actual assurance process. Tony Boylen, LR’s Principal Specialist, Assurance of Autonomy believes that projects involving different levels of autonomy must be broken down into segments for the assurance process, ultimately enabling an entire project to be viewed holistically and assured as one complete system.

Despite the challenges facing him and his colleagues, Boylen is a firm believer in the potential merits of degrees of autonomous operation. This, he says, is already clearly evident in the workboat sector for vessels of less than 24 metres in length. “For oceangoing ships, our top priority is decarbonisation, but I believe a symbiotic way forward is the advance of autonomy. I think this will have a far greater impact on the environment than most people think,” Boylen says. “You put decarbonisation and autonomy together and you get an exponential increase in benefits.”

LR is already involved in various projects, most notably the development of an oceangoing autonomous navigation system for the 2016-built Themis, an 8,000-car, Mitsui-operated vehicle carrier. LR is working with Mitsui & Co., Ltd, Singapore-based engineering group ST Engineering Electronics Ltd., and the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore. The objective of the project is to develop a fully autonomous decision-making navigation system which, although capable of operating independently, will ultimately be used by the ship’s navigators as a decision support system. The vessel trades internationally and navigates through busy waterways including the Malacca Straits, and the Suez and Panama Canals.

Assuring autonomy is a formidable task and must be undertaken at various levels, he explains. On the one hand, there are OEMs, shipowners and operators who would like sign-offs for a range of shipboard autonomous systems. Then, there are regulators and flag authorities who need classification society opinion, validations and the setting of standards for enforcement in national waters. And ultimately, there is the IMO which will have the final say on how far automation can be allowed to take over and/or support decision-making on the high seas.

"You put decarbonisation and autonomy together and you get an exponential increase in benefits."

Tony Boylen

Principal Specialist, Assurance of Autonomy, Lloyd's Register

Boylen also sounds a note of caution. “If someone said to you, I can give my word that this person can be trusted 99.99% to undertake this task, you’d probably feel confident. However, in a million lines of software code, 99.99% means that one hundred lines could be wrong. And that’s not good enough.” Nonetheless, he reveals that the marine insurance industry is watching developments closely. In certain circumstances, some levels of autonomous operation, or even a fully autonomous vessel, could prove safer than a manned one by reducing or eliminating human error. This could result in fundamental changes to business models in the future.

Although Boylen presides over what is still a relatively small component of LR’s assurance portfolio, business volumes are increasing steadily and accelerating quarter on quarter. “We are discussing more opportunities with clients who are now talking about moving on from demonstrations to real-life tests. “But you have to remember that even if projects involving different aspects of autonomy initially appear similar, every one has a specific operational context and variance in approach. And so, from a classification point of view, we must analyse and validate each project uniquely while striving to deliver value and efficiencies to the customer in our approach through their wider technical synergies,” Boylen concludes.