30 November 2020

What is the real future of autonomous ships?

Panel 1: Smart MASS – The technology that pulls
Smart shipping applications that show the new technology in practical use, including technology-oriented EU projects like AUTOSHIP, AEGIS.


Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

1     Thank you for inviting me to speak do the keynote speech to kick off this panel discussion. As we work to restart our economies and rebuild trade in a post-COVID-19 world, some people may have doubts about the pursuit of autonomous vessels. Is this something still worth investing in? To answer this question, I believe we need to relook at where we are today following the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

2     As many of us had experienced first-hand, digitalisation and automation are crucial to business continuity in the New Normal. As McKinsey’s study pointed out, COVID-19 and the commodity trends are likely to continue to dampen trade demands and shipping rates in the mid-term. To succeed in this New Normal, shipping companies will have to be ready to leverage on data. In addition, we believe that the pursuit of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships, or what we call MASS, is a good strategy to build resilience in the shipping industry.

3     I am sure that MASS will challenge our assumptions about shipping, making the industry more agile and adaptable. To integrate MASS into the global supply chains, we need to build ports that are smarter, with proper procedures, infrastructure, services and systems in place. Against the backdrop of all of these, we need adequate, secure and reliable digital connectivity. We want to transform the shipping industry towards a safer, more efficient, sustainable and environmental future.

4     Happily, our industry is gearing up to welcome this reality. The European Union is actively venturing into this space with the AUTOSHIP[1] project to demonstrate autonomous ship operations and the AEGIS[2] project to integrate small ships, inland transport and short-sea shipping with larger terminals.

5     Singapore, too, is jumping on the bandwagon on the pursuit of MASS. We want to get ourselves ready to allow seamless co-existence of various degrees of MASS and conventional manned ships within our port waters.

6     When we talked about MASS, we had grappled over the degrees of autonomy. To this, the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee has taken the lead by defining four degrees of autonomy as part of its regulatory scoping exercise for MASS. The industry is also taking guidance from these definitions as well:
  • Degree 1 is a ship with automated processes and decision support; some operations may be automated and at times may be unsupervised, but a seafarer is on board, ready to take control;
  • Degree 2 is a remotely controlled ship, operating from another location, but a seafarer is on board to take control;
  • Degree 3 is a remotely controlled ship with no seafarer on board; and
  • Degree 4 is a fully autonomous ship that is able to make decision and determine actions by itself.
7     While we may not see a fully autonomous ship with no crew on board operating commercially, this pursuit of MASS will bring along a myriad of technologies that could be integrated into the supply chains, making current transport systems more intelligent and sustainable.
8    In my speech at this same summit last year, I mooted the idea of forming a network among us where we can embrace opportunities and address common challenges in developing and regulating MASS operations in port so that we could driver greater efficiency, security, safety and sustainability of our ships and ports.

9     Today, one year later, despite being thrown in at the deep end by the global COVID-19 situation, we are still forging ahead. I am proud to share that China, Denmark, Finland, Japan, Netherlands, Norway and the Republic of Korea have joined us in this mission. We launched MASSPorts virtually in September, as a network of MASS-ready ports to drive the development of MASS technologies and ensure seamless inter-operations of MASS across participating ports.

10    As port, coastal and flag-state authorities, we set ourselves three specific targets to work out:
  • What needs to be in place to manage the test-bedding of MASS technologies in port?
  • What essential components in terms of communication, data exchange and ship reporting need to be in place so that MASS systems could integrate and interoperate across different ports?
  • Do the conditions set out really work?
Develop detailed guidelines and conditions for MASS trials in port
11    As a network, we aim to set common guidelines and conditions for MASS operations within our ports. Keeping ourselves in line with the IMO interim guidelines, we aim to address the challenges of integrating MASS operations gradually in ports. The MASSPorts looks into best practices, the scope of application of IMO instruments, risk factors, interactions involving MASS as well as shore-based infrastructure required to develop guidelines and conditions for MASS trials.

12    This is not a simple task when each port has our own set of unique challenges and operating conditions. Not to mention that if MASS trials were left unmanaged, the consequences could be enormous. This is why we are starting small, aiming for safe and controlled operations at all times. This means that we will start by conducting MASS trials and developments within inland ports as well as on short-sea voyages.

13    This is an iterative process. Members will have to review these guidelines and conditions as we gain experience from applications.

14    There is certainly room for MASSPorts to collaborate with other international and regional platform in this aspect. I learnt that the European Commission, Norway and other European countries are already drafting a set of common MASS trial guidelines. Going forward, we must harmonise our efforts and leverage on the good work that has already been done. We must build on one another’s experiences and successes; to actively refine, learn and validate one another’s efforts, so that we can design common standards as a network.

Establish common terminology, form and standards to make sure systems can interoperate across different ports
15    Which brings me to my next point on establishing common terms and standards for systems interoperability. Martin Stopford identified that the deep-sea communication networks in the 1860s was a key innovation that had revolutionised shipping communications and transformed merchant shipping. Today, I believe that with MASS, we are staging another such transformation. We no longer need 10 days to pass a message across oceans; instead, we need common terminology, form and standards in communication, ship reporting and data exchange.

16    We need information, both existing and new, to be integrated and incorporated into the development of MASS technology. To effectively integrate MASS into the global supply chain, they need to be designed for international shipping. We are not looking to apply yet another set of standards or equipment across different ports in the world. Instead, we need systems that can talk to each other and interoperate across different ports.

Facilitate port-to-port MASS trials
17    As the saying goes, you never know what you can do until you try. We look forward to facilitating port-to-port MASS trials to best emulate the international nature of shipping. Port-to-port MASS trials will allow our network to validate the conditions for MASS trials in ports, and to set out and test the inter-operability of port-based systems in place. When ready, we hope to collectively contribute our works to the IMO and IALA as they draw up the regulations and guidelines for MASS operations.

18    In Singapore, we recognise the multiple roles we play in the development of MASS. As a port and coastal state, we are actively working with others in MASSPorts and IALA to get our port ready to receive MASS. As a flag state, we are working closely with other Member States at the IMO to develop rules and regulations for operations of MASS with varying degrees of autonomy.

19    Last September, we took the intelliTug project out for MASS sea trials. This project is a collaboration between technology provider Wartsila, marine services provider PSA Marine, classification society Lloyd’s Register, the Technology Centre for Offshore and Marine Singapore (TCOMS) and the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA). Retrofitted with sensors, cameras and autonomous navigation systems, the habour tug verified the capabilities to avoid both virtual and real-life moving obstacles. It was also the first sea trial for Singapore’s regulatory sandbox for MASS.

2     Despite COVID-19, we remain committed to our MASS aspirations. In October, we successfully tested the Smart Maritime Autonomous Vessel, a project in collaboration with technology provider ST Engineering Marine, tug service provider POSH and classification society ABS, and telecommunication provider M1. The harbour tug demonstrated capabilities of remote-control and monitoring of ship’s engine, propulsion systems and auxiliary systems, condition-based maintenance of ships’ engines and generators, as well as autonomous navigation with collision detection and avoidance.

21    We are looking to conduct another series of trials with Keppel Singmarine’s autonomous tugs as well as ST Engineering’s autonomous flotsam collection vessel. I look forward to conducting more trials within the Port of Singapore and build on our regulatory sandbox to facilitate the testing of MASS technology in a safe and controlled environment. Singapore stands ready to be a “living lab” for autonomous shipping.

22    Last month, the two leading maritime research institutes in Singapore and Norway, TCOMS and SINTEF, unveiled a roadmap for smart and autonomous sea transport systems. The roadmap identified the key elements and research challenges involved in enabling the transformation towards smart and autonomous shipping. This roadmap aims to prioritise and coordinate research activities as well as to establish an international innovation ecosystem to support new business models and market opportunities.

23    During the pandemic, we also witnessed apprehensive harbour pilots who had valid concerns about boarding ships for risk of contacting the coronavirus. I am highlighting this as an example where we can leverage on technologies and digitalisation to provide remote pilotage service. We have tested this concept on an intra-port container where the harbour pilot sits ashore to provide pilotage advices with the help of on-board cameras, sensors and digital port information. Results were promising but we do need to work on the connectivity and latency issues.

24    There remains more to be learnt about MASS and its operations. To support the local MASS ecosystem, we set up a centre of excellence for autonomous and remote operations to carry out modelling and simulations. We are also working with industry partners and academia to gain clarity on questions such as: how do we ensure minimum standards before MASS sea trials? What scenarios have to be tested? How does MASS impact the rights of states under the UNCLOS?

25    All in all, I believe our industry is on track in setting the stage for MASS technologies and operations. The next step is to push forward to pilot trials, set standards and build interoperable systems through regional and international collaborations, with the conviction that we are creating a brighter future for all.

26    Thank you and I look forward to the discussion later with my fellow panellists.

[1] Autonomous Shipping Initiative for European Waters (AUTOSHIP) aims to speed up the transition towards a next generation of autonomous ships in the European Union. The consortium is joint effort among industrial partners and multi-domain experts to realise and demonstrate autonomous ship operations in short-sea shipping as well as inland water ways shipping.
[2] Advanced Efficient and Green Intermodal Systems (AEGIS) is a three-year project funded by the European Union. The project aims to showcase the use of autonomous ships and port autonomation to make waterborne transport more flexible and lower the environmental impact of inter-continental road transport in the European Union.