In a survey conducted by Reed Smith in the first half of 2018, industry participants predicted that big data analytics will be one of the most significant drivers of change in the shipping industry over the next five years. In addition, for the same five-year period, the survey revealed that the shipping industry considers the development of automated processes and functions on board vessels to be the biggest driver of efficiency in shipping.

The collection, analysis and management of huge volumes of unstructured data (i.e., big data), such as data on voyage performance, ship structure, machinery, fuel consumption, traffic, cargo and the weather, are expected to provide valuable insights into the operation of ships, and uncover hidden patterns as well as market trends. The analysis of big data will also allow the prediction of likely outcomes in certain voyages. In addition, it is likely to reduce costs, as the industry will be able to identify more efficient ways of doing business; it will allow decisions to be made more quickly; and it will make shipping safer by reducing risks.

Big analytics will also encourage the development of automated procedures and advanced technologies such as Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). The Yara Birkeland, scheduled to enter into operation in Norway by 2020, will be the first fully autonomous commercial vessel, while MASS that are able to trade internationally are expected to be introduced by 2035. The pressing question at the moment, and one of the greatest challenges in the industry as highlighted by our survey, is whether the required international legal framework will be in place quickly enough to allow the rapid adoption and widespread operation of advanced technologies such as MASS for international trade as opposed to cabotage.

Existing international conventions (such as those on Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), on Prevention of Pollution from Ships, and on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) and regulations (such as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea) were not drafted with unmanned ships and advanced technologies in mind. The IMO, with the assistance of the Comité Maritime International, is taking steps to identify issues arising from the existing legal regime. The IMO’s regulatory scoping exercise to identify issues arising from the conventions, is scheduled to be completed by 2020. Following the completion of the exercise, a decision will likely need to be made on whether the existing conventions or regulations need to be clarified or amended, or whether new conventions or regulations that deal with MASS and advanced technologies need to be brought into force.

Whereas clarifying and amending existing conventions can be done relatively quickly, enforcing new conventions is a time-consuming procedure that can take years or even decades to be completed. This is mainly due to the specific steps that need to be fulfilled by countries, such as receiving parliamentary approval before proceeding with ratification. Additional delays are likely to arise where countries with conflicting interests (for example, a high number of seafarers) might be reluctant to ratify conventions that allow the international operation of MASS and the adoption of technological advances.

Big data analytics and the operation of MASS are expected to make shipping safer, more efficient and more environmentally friendly, and our survey shows that the industry is willing to consider adopting innovative technologies. However, these technologies may initially operate on a small scale until the international legislation is in place to allow their widespread adoption.