Suez canal blockage: will it spur on autonomous shipping innovation?

Writing for Supply2Defence, Richard Worthington, partner and patent attorney at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers considers whether the recent Suez canal blockage could accelerate autonomous shipping innovation

By 2030, it is estimated that the global autonomous shipping sector will be worth a staggering £111 billion and employ over 554,000 people. These ships will need to travel safely between ports, react to dynamic situations and operate differently when entering locations such as Marine Protected Areas and MARPOL boundaries.

However, as the Suez canal blockage has shown, a single gust of wind can be enough to drive a ship off course, so is the maritime industry ready to welcome this disruptive technology?

The UK Government has recently published Maritime 2050 – its vision for the future of Britain’s maritime sector – and it is clear that automated shipping has an important role to play. The strategy sets out a goal for the UK to become a world leader in the development of regulation for the security of automated vessels and connected systems in the next five to 15 years. To achieve this, the industry will require ships that are equipped with cutting edge automated navigation systems. As well as ensuring effective surveillance, these hi-tech vessels must continue to support a rules-based international system (RBIS), working closely with NATO and European partners.

If recent events in the Suez Canal are anything to go by, autonomous shipping technology could bring considerable benefits. While an investigation into the circumstances of the accident is still ongoing, it seems that reduced visibility during a sandstorm may have caused the ship to veer into a side bank. Autonomous navigations systems could help to eliminate accidents caused by human error, while improving safety and optimising operational efficiency. When transiting the Suez Canal for example, a ‘Suez Pilot’ would no longer be required.

Developing an automated navigation system that is reliable and safe, whilst also being dynamic enough to adapt to the rules and regulations that apply in different ports and maritime boundaries, is incredibly challenging of course. Autonomous navigation systems rely on vast amounts of data and whilst much of this can be sourced from maritime organisations such as the UK Hydrographic Office, other geodata about the ship’s maritime location and weather conditions is supplied by onboard sensors.

Some interesting innovations in this space include BMT’s new navigation system, which combines its field-proven Rembrandt and Tuflow simulation technologies to enhance autonomous operations planning and real-time navigation safety in busy waterways and ports. The C-Worker 7, constructed by L3Harris, is a small-scale autonomous surface vehicle, which promises to be one of the first autonomous and unmanned ships used in the UK. Elsewhere in the world, automated shipping trials are already underway, including one involving the Yara Birkeland, constructed by Norwegian shipbuilder, Vard, which hopes to be fully operational by 2022.

As the global innovation race to achieve autonomous shipping gathers momentum, many countries hope to lead the way. To secure a stake in this fast-developing marketplace however, innovators will need to ensure they have patent protection in a variety of geographies. With much of the patent landscape still unmapped, a significant commercial opportunity exists for those that succeed in developing technologies that become standard in the future.


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