In Depth: No Market for Unmanned Ships in Tanker Sector


Although the shipping industry is putting greater focus on making remotely-controlled and autonomous ships a reality, the flurry of developments in this field might not be in the best interest of all shipping markets.

On the back of the technological developments in autonomy, and other major trends in the maritime industry, including digitalisation, digital disruption and steps taken towards green shipping, World Maritime News spoke to Gernot Ruppelt, Chief Commercial Officer, Ardmore Shipping, who said that tankers would not benefit from vessel autonomy.

Ruppelt will be speaking at the Asia Pacific Maritime 2018 conference, which takes place 14-16 March 2018.

“At this stage, we don’t see a market for unmanned shipping in the tanker sector,” Ruppelt told World Maritime News.

“The only way this will happen is with the approval of the oil majors for this technology and that simply isn’t plausible at this stage. We don’t envisage them being happy with no crew on board and without their approval, there is no market for it in the tanker sector,” he added.

Furthermore, Ardmore Shipping’s CCO said that the company has no involvement in the development of unmanned ships.

He explained that the company “would prefer to see more resources being invested into emissions reduction technology, which is a higher priority for the industry than autonomous shipping.”

When asked about the industry’s efforts to shrink its environmental footprint, Ruppelt said that the industry is willing to invest in new technologies in order to cut emissions, “but the best way to achieve this is to align it with an organisation’s commercial priorities.”

Ruppelt: Where a reduction in emissions is driven by lower fuel consumption and a lower fuel bill, there is a natural commercial incentive that can be unlocked. Many ship owners want to play their part in cutting emissions, and technology has a huge role to play if it is priced at the right level and has gone through verifiable trials to demonstrate its effectiveness. However, we also need charterers to join the debate and to commit to supporting emissions-reduction technologies.

WMN: Speaking about the digital transformation in the maritime industry, many companies seem to be reluctant to take on the changes. Judging by the implementation speed of the new technologies, could we say that the industry is in denial?

Ruppelt: There will always be a tension between the claims made by technology innovators, who are understandably passionate about what they believe their solutions can deliver, and the threshold that must be satisfied before a shipping company gets out its cheque book. For an owner, the cost of getting it wrong can be very high. I wouldn’t say that the industry is in denial, but everyone is a little cautious about being the first mover when it comes to new technologies. I would describe Ardmore as an early adopter, if not a pioneer, and we have certainly seen the benefits of embracing new technology.

WMN: The changes related to cyber-security, Internet of Things and bandwidth are said to be of great importance for the maritime industry as well. How is the industry dealing with these segments? What have been the most important developments in these fields so far?

Ruppelt: We welcome investment into new technology that has the potential to improve safety and performance in the shipping industry. From our perspective, the most important development to date has been in the use of remote monitoring and ship-to-shore connectivity to deliver real-time performance optimisation. We have installed one of the best navigation and engine link systems, with centralised sensors to communicate with shore.

WMN: When the digitalisation in the maritime sector kicks in, how will it affect the industry? What will digitalisation mean for ship and port owners and operators?

Ruppelt: The priority for all parts of the shipping supply chain will be to unlock the practical benefits of digitalisation but without overlooking the challenges that accompany it. These challenges can take a number of forms, but include how they will impact onboard operating procedures and the skillsets of seafarers – such as in the transition from paper charts to ECDIS – as well as the cyber-security threats posed by greater digitalisation and connectivity.

WMN: Has Ardmore Shipping developed strategies that could help the company in recognising
and combating cyber threats?

Ruppelt: We recognise the cyber threats that shipping companies and individual vessels now face and we are naturally taking the necessary steps to protect our business and our ships, which includes following the best practice guidelines when it comes to onboard cyber-security practices. As with all elements of digitalisation, we need to balance the benefits that this technology brings with the additional vulnerabilities. As we have seen with a number of high profile cyber-attacks last year, this is something that applies equally to shoreside operations.

WMN: At what stage is Ardmore Shipping’s fleet when it comes to the compliance with the EU Monitoring, Reporting and Verification of CO2 (EU MRV) regulation, which came into effect on January 1, 2018?

Ruppelt: We are 100% compliant and ready for MRV reporting which we believe the vast majority of the industry are. We hope that in time that the EU approach could be merged with IMO requirements due to the inherent complexity that multiple approaches bring to trying to analyse and address global concerns.

WMN: With respect to the IMO Ballast Water Management Convention (BWMC) which entered into force on September 8, 2017, what is the status of Ardmore Shipping’s fleet regarding the installation of special equipment required by BWMC standards?

Ruppelt: A significant proportion of our fleet has ballast water treatment systems installed. As well as gaining experience in their use and assessing their operational capacities and complexities, we also have a comprehensive plan for retrofitting the balance of our fleet to ensure that we comply with all regulatory requirements at all times. However, it is a pity that in a global business such as shipping, we have different regional models and regional standards trying to govern the same regulatory issue. This fragmented regional approach is far from conducive to delivering the global best practice that the whole industry should strive towards.

When asked about Ardmore Shipping’s plans to further expand the fleet with more secondhand/newbuilding ships, following the acquisition of the 2008-built product tanker Challenge Pearl in 2017, Ruppelt said that the company would evaluate each opportunity “if good suitable candidates for purchase become available.”

“We always encourage restraint in newbuild orders, rather than a return to over-ordering. However, we will always ensure that we have the capability to act if the right opportunity presents itself, in the form of high quality ships at the right price.”

Interview conducted by Erna Penjic, Editor, World Maritime News
Image Courtesy: Ardmore Shipping

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