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Realising the benefits of autonomous vessels

The era of the fully autonomous vessel is approaching. VAL JERVIS and EIRIK BLIKSRUD consider what current solutions will support the deployment of such ships and identify what work still needs to be done

The maritime sector continues to pursue technical improvements to maintain safety and ensure that maritime services can develop to meet changing operational requirements and deliver efficiency and environmental benefits.  The International Maritime Organisation (IMO)  has been updating the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) instruments and the ITU is addressing spectrum access and technical standards. In the case of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) the IMO has undertaken a regulatory scoping exercise to understand how existing instruments might apply and what changes may be necessary.

What is an autonomous vessel?

There are different levels of autonomy. Only degree 1 and 2 are feasible under current ITU and IMO regulations.

Source: Avikus

Degree 4 will involve operational decisions and monitoring with no human intervention. Its advantages are clear:

  • There is no requirement for crew quarters or a bridge, saving space that can be used for additional cargo.
  • The routing and operation of the vessel is not constrained by the needs of a crew, providing greater flexibility, optimised routes and reduced operational cost.
  • Emissions can be minimised by altering course and speed to take account of sea conditions and the optimum operation of the vessel.
  • Human error in decision making is removed, reducing the risk of incidents at sea.
  • It is highly suited to repetitive and dangerous tasks.

In some instances it may be necessary to provide remote control of the ship by a human located in another vessel or at a control station onshore. This might, for example, occur if a ship has to respond to an emergency.

Autonomous operation requirements

Autonomous operation is based on perception and cognition, and judgement and control as shown below.

The starting point is knowing the location and course of the autonomous ship and how this relates to other ships, buoys and obstacles – ‘situational awareness’. This data is provided by a number of sensors and systems and integrated to provide a ‘picture’ of the situation that may require action by the autonomous vessel.

In human operation the officer of the watch will determine a necessary action, such as a change of course, based on the navigational plan, the expected actions of other ships under international regulations, and experience. An autonomous ship is able to make similar judgements, including identifying risks of collision, and take any necessary action.

What maritime radiocommunications services are needed?

To achieve the vision of autonomous vessels it will be necessary to put in place systems and protocols to provide for safety related data, accurate positioning, reporting, and monitoring and control. The three communications requirements are ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship. There are already existing and planned services that can be used, many of which already have access to spectrum and are required under the GMDSS.

The automatic identification system (AIS) enables information exchange between ships and ships and shore, including the vessel identity, size, position, speed and course. This allows the relative position of ships and shore to be monitored and, for example, appropriate action to be taken to avoid collisions. AIS operates autonomously, with no need for intervention to obtain the necessary data. It primarily uses two dedicated channels in the VHF band (161.975 MHz and 162.025 MHz) and has now been installed on the majority of commercial vessels as well as on an increasing number of pleasure craft.

e-Navigation is intended ‘to meet present and future needs of shipping through harmonisation of marine navigation systems and supporting shore services’. For example it will provide integration and presentation of information received in graphical displays

Long range tracking and identification (LRIT) provides for ‘the global identification and tracking of ships to enhance security of shipping and for the purposes of safety and marine environment protection’. Reports are transmitted at regular intervals, typically every 6 hours, from the ship to a shore data centre via a satellite link. LRIT is currently only available to governments and national administrations.

Vessel traffic services (VTS) monitor vessels’ movements based on AIS and radar data and will allow the ship traffic on sea routes to be managed. VTS is established by harbour and port authorities to provide services in information, traffic organisation and navigational assistance.

VHF data exchange systems (VDES) will support communications and positioning data but also new services such as e-navigation and facilitate autonomous shipping. In addition to AIS and AMS (application specific messages) it will include satellite communications (LEOs) to provide high speed two way data exchange on a global basis not just in coastal areas served by VHF frequencies.

Maritime safety information (MSI) / NAVDAT provides higher data throughput than NAVTEX and supports the digital broadcasting of navigation, safety and security related data between shore and ships. Messages sent include navigational and meteorological warnings, search and rescue, VTS traffic information, tides and currents and meteorological forecasts and local information. NAVDAT operates at 500 kHz (MF band) on a 10 kHz channel or in the high frequency bands.

A global navigation satellite service (GNSS) provides the means of accurately locating the position of a ship to the high degree of precision needed for autonomous operation. A constellation of satellites transmit positioning and timing signals to receivers that use the data to determine their location. There are four core global satellite navigation systems: GPS (US), GLONASS (Russian Federation), BeiDou (China) and Gallileo (European Union).

Communications will be an essential part of realising autonomous vessels. VHF will play a key role for coastal voyages as will satellite, in particular for offshore and oceanic voyages. MF communications are likely to be replaced by satellites over time.

Maritime broadband radio (MBR) operating in the 5.8 GHz range,1 although not part of GMDSS or other systems specified in the SOLAS2 convention, will be able to provide broadband communications links (around 10 Mbps) for ships and fixed installations engaged in offshore activities. MBR will enable the transmission of operational, navigational and administrative data, updating of chart data, and messaging and live video from cameras for potential ranges greater than 45 kms by using highly dynamic beamforming and adaptive power control.

Developments and trials

Trials of unmanned ship operation have already started and extensive testing will be essential to ensure autonomous vessels can meet the necessary safety, control, monitoring, management and operational requirements. In the EU, operational guidelines for trials of MASS have been developed.3 They are not mandatory but support trials ‘in designated testing environments (test areas and/or ship safety zones), in the interest of the protection of human life, maritime safety, security and the environment’.

In Norway Kongsberg Maritime is providing key enabling technologies, such as sensors and integration, for a fully electric and autonomous container ship, the Yara Birkeland. The ship has a small capacity (120 twenty-foot containers) and has a detachable bridge that can be removed when ready for autonomous operation. It is equipped with radars, AIS, daylight camera detectors and pan/ tilt zoom systems with daylight camera and infrared sensor that provide situational awareness, and maritime broadband radio and GSM for connectivity and communication. The ship operates between Herøya and Brevik with the route monitored by the VTS in Brevik.

The remote operation centre undertakes voyage planning, emergency and exception handling, condition and operational monitoring and surveillance of the ship and surroundings.

Japan has been very active in the development and testing of initiatives related to autonomous vessels.  The advantages are seen to be significant given, with an aging population, a shortage of crew. MEGURI2040 is a fully autonomous ship navigation project launched by The Nippon Foundation in 2020.4 The figure below shows the five different projects for which new equipment, systems, technologies and frameworks were being developed in November 2021. The aim was to undertake tests by the end of March 2022.

Source: The Nippon Foundation

In one trial under MEGURI2040 a fully operational autonomous ship operated between Tokyo Bay and Ise Bay – a distance of 790 kms. The system consisted of three primary components – navigation ship side, shore side support and communications and information exchange between ship and shore. There is also a fleet operations centre that tracks the ship and can take over control if necessary.


There are a number of issues that need to be addressed before fully autonomous vessels can be deployed for commercial use. These include:

  1. Reliable communications between ships and between ship and shore that can support the necessary services and data capacity. Satellite communications will become increasingly important to provide the necessary data transmission in sea areas A3 and A4 where the VHF band cannot provide coverage and MF and HF bands may not be sufficiently reliable.
  2. Redundancy of communications solutions to ensure the necessary high level of availability and the ability to override ship manoeuvres remotely in case of, for example, a safety issue.
  3. Security of communications is an important consideration. Awareness of cyber security is currently low in the maritime community. Existing navigation systems are vulnerable to attack and ships carrying containers with values reaching hundreds of millions of dollars can be ideal targets for extortionists. Ships are increasingly reliant on the exchange of information between ship and shore, as well as special purpose data exchange systems used only by ships. These open up new opportunities for attackers. GNSS receivers can be jammed; spoofing can lead to incorrect positions and corrupted data can lead to inappropriate avoidance manoeuvres and an increased risk of collisions.
  4. Access to sufficient and appropriate spectrum. Obtaining further spectrum for maritime services is difficult, as evidenced for other services. It may be necessary to refarm some older systems and introduce new channel plans rather than seeking further spectrum at future World Radiocommunication Conferences.
  5. Development of open equipment standards necessary for a global market and to ensure that safety standards are tested and met.

Finally, there remain questions over what to do about non GMDSS ships that are not autonomous and how to support emergency situations, such as responding to vessels in distress.


It is clear that some degree of autonomy will be introduced over the coming years as systems and services become more readily available. However the vision of fully autonomous vessels will require global adoption aa well as changes to existing maritime regulations – there is currently no way of exempting human surveillance for vessels covered by GMDSS. It will be important to follow developments and address security and spectrum issues before they become significant challenges.


Eirik Bliksrud is general manager at Bliksrud Telecom and previously chief engineer at the Norwegian Post and Telecommunications Authority.

Val Jervis

Val Jervis is a director at Plum Consulting. She previously held senior roles in the telecommunication industry and at Ofcom. She is a chartered engineer and a member of the Institute of Engineering and Technology.

1 See ETSI technical standard EN 303 276.

2 The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea.

3 EU Operational Guidelines for Safe, Secure and Sustainable Trials of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) (2020).

4 The Nippon Foundation MEGURI2040 Fully Autonomous Ship Program.