What are Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships?

Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) is the term used by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) for ships which, to a varying degree, can operate in part, or completely independent of human interaction. The IMO Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) identifies four degrees of automation on a scale, starting with degree 0 (no autonomy) and ending with degree 4 (full autonomy).

The degrees of MASS autonomy are outlined below:

  • Degree Zero: Seafarers are on board to operate and control all shipboard systems and functions with no autonomous features.
  • Degree One: Ship with automated processes and decision support: Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Some operations may be automated and at times be unsupervised but with seafarers on board ready to take control.
  • Degree Two: Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. Seafarers are available on board to take control and to operate the shipboard systems and functions.
  • Degree Three: Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. There are no seafarers on board.
  • Degree Four: Fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

It is worth noting that an autonomous ship could operate one or more degree of autonomy over its voyage. For example: in open water with less hazards the vessel may operate at degree four under full artificial intelligence (AI) computer control but when approaching a port or congested area change to degree three to be controlled by a remote operator. The common misconception of autonomous ships is that they are fully computer controlled and the crew is no longer required. From the four degrees of autonomy outlined you will see that this is not the case.

It is clear the development of MASS technology will bring about a worldwide change to the shipping logistics industry, port operations and the safety of navigation. New regulations and provisions will need to be developed in the very near future to ensure the continued safe operation of all sea vessels.


Why do we even need autonomous ships?

With many parts of the logistics industry around the world experiencing a skilled labour shortage there would be many people that assume this is the primary reason – but not necessarily. AI controlled autonomous ships can be safer, more fuel efficient and therefore more environmentally friendly. 

In its 2019 annual overview, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) found that 65.8% of Marine Casualties and Incidents were attributed to human error. Human error was also to blame when the Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal for six days in March 2021. This particular error cost the maritime industry an estimated $10 billion per day plus months of supply chain issues and delays worldwide. Even more devastating than the economic impact is the fact that a person died during the process of freeing the ship. With human error accidents being so costly you can see why shipping companies are keen to invest in autonomy for this reason alone. 


What are the risks of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships?

The main risk for autonomous vessels is cybersecurity – could the vessel be hijacked by hackers? With the lack of crew on board, if a vessel were to be hacked, there would be no manual safety override or ability for manual control. Other risks such as monitoring the vessel and remote connectivity could also be a problem should they become disrupted during a voyage. Failsafes and redundancy/backup systems would need to be available should the need arise. 


Are Autonomous Ships already being used?

At the moment there are many working autonomous vessels but all are still either operating with limited conditions or are in testing or a trial stages and not in general use. The International Maritime Organisation and Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) are working to integrate these new and advancing MASS technologies into the current regulatory framework and regulations. The result may be that vessels classed as MASS will need to comply with a new set of MASS specific regulations independent but parallel to the current framework so they can work together in conjunction.

Prism Courage

The Prism Courage, controlled by a degree two autonomous navigation system called HiNAS 2.0, left a port in the Gulf of Mexico on May 1st, sailed through the Panama Canal, and then arrived at a port in South Korea 33 days later. For approximately half the voyage the ship was controlled completely  by the HiNAS 2.0 AI which, due to the AI’s route choices, increased fuel efficiency by approximately 7% and reduced carbon emissions by approximately 5%. The HiNAS 2.0 AI can process masses of data simultaneously such a vessel speed and direction, weather conditions, wind speed and waves and use this data to calculate the most efficient route. 

Yara Birkeland

The Yara Birkeland a 120 TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units) sea freight container ship is the world’s first fully electric (and soon to be fully autonomous, degree 3 or 4) container vessel with zero emissions. With key collaboration from Kongsberg Maritime, Vard and Enova SF the Yara Birkeland is planned to be put into operation this year. Initially it will start a two-year trial to become degree four autonomous and certified as an autonomous, fully electric container shipping vessel.


With new technology comes the requirement for newly trained and qualified operators.

Seafarers safety on MASS degree three and four vessels is a big advantage, with the crew removed from the vessel entirely the associated risks are also removed. As I mentioned earlier – this does not mean the crew is no longer required! Many companies, such as MASSPeople in the UK, are in the process of developing new standards and a training programs through which seafarers can be educated and retrained in the operation of autonomous vessels. Imagine a world where crews co-ordinate and monitor their vessel remotely from a local command station and get to be home with their families each night rather than months at sea in harsh conditions – I know which I’d prefer.

Published by A Kennedy

An award winning, UK based, International Logistics Manager for a multinational tool company. Over 25 years experience in international logistics and supply chain management. Elected ‘Chartered Status’ by the CILT and ‘Expert Status’ by the IoSCM.

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