There’s no denying that technological advances have drastically changed every aspect of our lives.  From the development of self-lacing trainers as seen in futuristic 1980’s films, to the trial of autonomous air taxis in Dubai in September (The Engineer), what started out as a digital revolution in the Information Era has crossed from mass consumerism over into the commercial world. Termed Industry 4.0, it includes everything from instant payments to instant delivery, with innovations all seeming to have the same goal: to save time, and ultimately, money. From a business perspective, this sounds too good to be true, but KMB Shipping’s Sea and Air Freight Director Kevin Jones looks at what impact this could have specifically on the transportation industry.

Earlier this year, Rolls Royce and towage operator Svitzer successfully tested the world’s first remotely operated commercial vehicle (Business Insider). From the quayside in Copenhagen, the vessel was undocked, manoeuvred and piloted to the Svitzer HQ before redocking. With Rolls Royce having previously planned to launch their first remote control cargo ships by 2020 (engadget), it seems they are well on track. The development of Norwegian company Seaway Innovations’ fully automated container loading systems & vessels, running on hydrogen fuel to reduce emissions, is also underway (Port Strategy).

The trend in moving towards autonomous transportation is not limited to just sea vessels though. Recent months have seen the UK government pledge £8.1 million funding for truck platooning trials next year, as well as the development of drones with the potential to deliver up to 200kg of goods (The Engineer).


The rise of vehicle and vessel automation testing does raise some important questions though. Legally, all ocean vessels must have be properly crewed, so fully autonomous unmanned ships would not be allowed to sail internationally. This however, could well change in the future, with initial discussions on the issue started by the UN’s International Maritime Organisation earlier this year (The Conversation).

The more pressing concern is the issue of safety due to workforce reduction. Although testing of autonomous vehicles and vessels have included drivers and crews ready on standby to take over if necessary, this may not always be the case. Although the European Maritime Safety Agency found that 62% of 880 global accidents between 2011 and 2015 were caused by “human erroneous action”, a further study conducted in March 2017 concluded that where accidents do occur, the consequences may be far worse on an unmanned ship than a crewed one (The Engineer); for example, in the case of fire breakouts.

FIATA Chairman Jens Roemer believes automation can’t replace human involvement, saying “Supply chains are highly complex and multi-layered. There’s no algorithm that can understand and counter all the challenges freight forwarders face on a daily basis.” (The Loadstar).


Theoretically, the idea sounds like a potential money saving dream, and not just for freight companies. Savings could be passed on to customers, in a post-Brexit economy that is currently promising uncertainty and increasing trade costs. In reality however, will the savings be as great as we think?

Christian Matthews, Head of Maritime Technology at Liverpool John Moores University, highlights that with the cost of new sensors and control systems, if potential fuel efficiency is factored in, the saving made through carrying cargo autonomously may only be around 3.4%. Unmanned cargo ships may also have to change their fuel, an inevitable necessity as most use oil which needs to be manually heated and refined on board before use. This would see costs increase by 14.8% (The Conversation).

Not quite the money saving miracle we were thinking, right? This doesn’t seem to be deterring the industry though. In addition to Rolls Royce, the Yara Birkeland, the world’s first zero emission, fully autonomous ship, is set to launch in Norway in 2020, and several Japanese shipping firms have reportedly invested hugely in the technology too (The Guardian). The success of the unmanned cargo ship will no doubt be dependent on costs and safety successes. Whether the so called “ghost” ships are abandoned at the first sign of stormy seas remains to be seen.

Kevin Jones is Sea & Air Freight Director at KMB Shipping, offering 30 years’ experience in delivering our full range of shipping services to over 70 different countries, to a growing international client list. As members of BIFA, we offer a flexible and fully tailored service, managing the whole shipping process for you from initial phone call to safe delivery. Contact our professional, friendly and highly experienced team today to discuss how we can accommodate your shipping requirements.