KEYNOTE SPEECH BY MS QUAH LEY HOON, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, MARITIME AND PORT AUTHORITY OF SINGAPORE AT THE INTERNATIONAL SHIP AUTONOMY AND SUSTAINABILITY SUMMIT AT CLARION HOTEL THE HUB, OSLO, NORWAY ON 3 JUNE 2019

06 June 2019

Mr. Magnus Thue, State Secretary to the Minister of Education and Research

Mr. Trond Langemyr, Chair of the Board NFAS

Distinguished guests


1.     Good morning everyone. It is my pleasure to be here today to share on this very exciting and timely topic of autonomous ships.  Exciting because it is a technology that is still evolving, with many questions that we have still unanswered - will it really kick off on a large scale? and if so, how long of a horizon are we talking about?  And I hope you are not looking at me for an answer, as I do not have one yet.  But I want to share with you today what is Singapore’s vision of autonomous ships in our ports.  


Age of Autonomous Shipping?

2.     There is a lot of buzz around autonomous ships and ports.  You see news headlines when there are successful testbeds, pilots and trials. 

3.     The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) too, is gearing up and recently started a Regulatory Scoping Exercise to develop construction standards and operating rules for MASS (or Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships). 

4.    So the million-dollar question is when can we see it taking off in a big wave or will it ever?  To answer this, I thought of looking back a bit into time, and what is happening in the autonomous world in other sectors. 

Long History of Autonomous Vehicle Technology

5.     According to a WIRED article that I read recently, it suggests that the history of autonomous vehicle technology dates all the way to the 1500s – starting with Leonardo da Vinci’s self-propelled cart. It could move simply with springs under high tension, and steering could be set in advance to move the cart in a predetermined path1.  

6.     Moving along the centuries, we saw in the 1800s and 1900s, torpedo guidance technology, aircraft autopilot technology, car cruise control, and in the 2000s, unmanned flying drones, and of course, Tesla cars (which I heard just opened shop in China too). So, autonomous vehicles dated back a few centuries ago. 

7.     What about shipping? My team was helping me do some research.  In the 1970s, Rolf Schonknecht already envisaged in his book “Ships and Shipping of Tomorrow”, that ship Masters would perform their duties from an onshore office building and the ships navigated with the use of computers.

8.     Fast forward 60 years to day from the 1970s, we are witnessing ships built for various degrees of autonomy (and sustainability). I was told that in the upcoming Nor-Shipping Next Generation Ship Award, the nominated autonomous ships are either already operational or to be delivered in the next few years:

• the Yara Birkeland (fully electric, zero emissions and autonomous container ship), 

Teekay’s ‘E-shuttle’ tanker, AET’s shuttle vessel (both utilise LNG and innovative Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) Recovery Systems to create energy efficient and environmentally friendly fuel mix solutions); and

Sovcomflot’s Gagarin Prospect (the world’s first Aframax tanker designed to use LNG as a primary fuel)2


9.     60 years from concept to prototype – it is real and is taking place. The question we should ask ourselves today is therefore what will it take for autonomous vessels to take on international shipping routes.  We have some serious challenges to overcome, but perhaps we can turn these challenges into opportunities if we can work hand in hand together.  

Transforming Challenges into Opportunities

10.     What are these challenges?

11.     First concern is safety. What is the command, control and communication we need for safe navigation alongside other ships in busy waterways? Are ports ready? 

12.     Second, crew.  Do we still need crew?  On the contrary to the fear of many, I actually believe that we will still need highly skilled and qualified seafarers if we want to drive mass adoption of MASS. 

13.     Third, cybersecurity. How do we ensure that new systems, processes and training can help to prevent and mitigate those risks?

14.     Last but not least, international rules and standards.  We need to adopt a global framework that supports port to port, and ship to port communication.  Shipping is after all an international affair. IMO and its member states have already started work. 

A Future Ready Port for MASS Operations

15.     What does it take then for a port to be ready?  It is an important question for a port like Singapore.  We are located along one of the busiest shipping routes in the world.  As a major transshipment and bunker hub, at any one time, there are over 1,000 ships in Singapore. Every 2 – 3 minutes, a ship arrives or leaves Singapore.

16.     This is our vision of what a future ready port for MASS operations would be like.  A vision that will allow for co-existence of various degrees of MASS ships and conventional manned ships within our port waters.  

17.     Critical to this vision, is the hard and software for the port. This includes shore-based communication infrastructure, as well as smarter port infrastructure capable of interacting with smarter ships, complemented with auxiliary support services including legal, insurance, academics and classification societies.


MASS Opportunities for the Port of Singapore

18.     And we believe MASS technology can bring opportunities.

19.     [Safer navigation] If done well, smart ship technology can reduce human errors, make precise decision making and enhance navigational safety in our port.

20.     [Lower environmental impact] MASS can lower environmental footprint with more efficient technology that require less fuel consumption.

21.     [Workforce transformation] For countries with ageing population, such technology can attract more diverse talents into the industry, especially to the younger, tech-savvy generation.

22.     [Enhancing connectivity and productivity] Smarter vessels can enhance connectivity and productivity. 

Singapore – A Living Lab

23.     At this point, I thought I will show you a short video of what we are doing to tap on smart maritime technologies.  Not confined to autonomous, but it will give you a flavor of some of the future trends beyond autonomous vessels that we are preparing ourselves for. 

Hope you enjoyed the video.  I want to further share what we have done in Singapore to get our port ready for MASS.  It is not easy work, but there are a few pieces of jigsaw puzzle we need to put in place.

MASS Partnerships in Singapore

24.     First and foremost, getting relevant government agencies and industry players together.  We set up a cross-government agency steering committee which includes stakeholders such as the Singapore Shipping Association, Centre for International Law and the Economic Development Board.

25.     There are three working groups which look at questions such as how will a shore-based operator communicate with an autonomous ship?  What new modes of pilotage services would be needed? Will special routes for MASS ships be necessary? What role does a MASS ship play in an emergency in our waters? 

Receiving Ocean-Going MASS in the Port of Singapore

26.     Second, we testbed new technology.  ST Engineering will be developing and installing “perception and navigation modules” on a Singapore-flagged ocean-going 8000-CEU car carrier, owned by MV Themis and operated by Mitsui & Co. Ltd.  In fact, they will be calling in Singapore next week.  I am looking forward to going onboard the vessel. Perhaps we can catch a glimpse into the possible future where receiving large autonomous ocean-going ships in Singapore could become the new norm. 

27.     At the same time, we are test-bedding port systems.  Imagine – a future where pilots can provide e-pilotage advice from shore-based stations, along with just in time vessel traffic management and communication.

A Vibrant MASS-enabled Harbourcraft Sector

28.     Third, we do pilots on a small-scale within our port waters – harbor crafts as early adopters of MASS.  

29.     There are various potential use cases for MASS technologies in port. They can be applied to fixed route services like ferries, enforcement and patrol craft, utility services- like flotsam collection, and on demand services including towage operations.

30.     The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore is also supporting development and test-bedding of three autonomous tugs. Trials are on-going. 

Autonomous Flotsam Clearance Vessel 

31.     Fourth, explore sustainability to couple with autonomy – we are trying to develop the world’s first solar powered autonomous flotsam collection vessel.  This is being jointly piloted by ST Engineering and the Singapore University of Technology and Design.  Flotsam vessels are important in Singapore because we retrieve about 400 cubic metres every month.  

32.     Besides solar powered, we are hoping that this vessel can be “intelligent”: differentiate biodegradable and non-biodegradable wastes, collision detection and avoidance systems through operating from a shore command centre. 

What’s next?

33.     To conclude, there are still many questions surrounding autonomous vessels, but I think it is an inevitable trend. Similar to how smartphones used to be so far and distance in the 1980s, it is the norm today.  

34.     Singapore is therefore sparing no effort to get ourselves ready and prepared.  We set up cross agency committees to bring together relevant stakeholders; we testbed the technology and port systems; we conduct trials and do pilots; and lastly, we build in sustainable means and smart technology.  Singapore will also continue to work with IMO on the Regulatory Scoping Exercise and with IALA on the e-navigation work to set standards for trials to take place.

35.     I thought I will end my speech here with a proposal.  Singapore would like to seek like-minded port authorities around the world to form a network to collaborate on uniform safety and operational standards, port to port trials and crew competencies – a network of MASSPorts.  I think if like-minded countries can come together, we can drive greater efficiency, security, safety and sustainability of our ships and our ports. 

36.     Thank you.  I look forward to continuing our conversations throughout the conference.