According to a survey by McKinsey, 93% of supply chain executives plan to increase their investments in resilience, and 47% of them consider automation and digitization as the top priority. Autonomous supply chains can help businesses by enabling faster and more accurate demand forecasting, optimizing inventory levels and distribution networks, automating warehouse and delivery operations, and enhancing customer service and satisfaction. Autonomous supply chains can also help businesses by enabling new business models, such as direct-to-consumer, subscription-based, and circular, and creating new sources of revenue and competitive advantage. The rise of e-commerce and omnichannel retailing has increased the complexity and speed of supply chain operations, creating the need for more flexibility, agility, and responsiveness. E-commerce and omnichannel retailing have changed the expectations and behaviors of customers, who demand more variety, convenience, and personalization, as well as faster and cheaper delivery. Autonomous supply chains can help businesses to meet the demands of e-commerce and omnichannel retailing, by enabling more efficient and effective order fulfillment, reducing delivery time and cost, increasing customer loyalty and retention, and providing more visibility and control over the supply chain. Autonomous supply chains can also help businesses to innovate and differentiate themselves in the e-commerce and omnichannel retailing market, by enabling customized and personalized products and services, and creating unique and memorable customer experiences.

The growing awareness of environmental and social issues has increased the demand for sustainability and transparency in supply chain operations, creating the need for more visibility, accountability, and collaboration. Environmental and social issues, such as climate change, resource depletion, human rights, and labor standards, have become more prominent and urgent, as customers, regulators, investors, and society at large have become more conscious and concerned about the environmental and social impacts of supply chain activities. According to a report by Accenture, 83% of consumers prefer to buy from companies that are transparent about their supply chain practices, and 72% of consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that are ethically and sustainably sourced. Autonomous supply chains can help businesses to address the environmental and social issues, by enabling more efficient and effective use of resources, reducing waste and emissions, ensuring compliance and accountability, and enhancing trust and reputation. Autonomous supply chains can also help businesses to create social and environmental value, by enabling more inclusive and equitable supply chains, supporting local and social enterprises, and contributing to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Autonomous shipping is the use of self-driving vessels to transport goods and passengers across waterways. According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS) is defined as a ship which, to a varying degree, can operate independently of human interaction. This would include the use of technology to carry out various ship functions such as navigation, propulsion, steering, and control of machinery. The IMO uses the following classification in its regulatory scoping work:

Autonomous shipping has the potential to reduce human errors, improve safety, lower costs, and increase efficiency in the maritime industry. According to Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty in its Global Claims Review Liability in Focus, 75 to 96 percent of maritime incidents are caused by human errors ranging from fatigue to lack of training.  Crews also account for approximately 44 percent of shipping expenses, and crews also take up space that could be utilized for cargo and add weight to the vessel.  Rolls Royce predicts that lighter unmanned vessels will burn 15 percent less fuel. Autonomous shipping does pose technical, regulatory, and ethical challenges that need to be addressed before it can come to fruition. Several technologies are enabling the development and implementation of autonomous shipping, such as:

South Korea’s Samsung Heavy Industries is making advancements in autonomous shipping, and in 2020 they retrofitted one of their Samsung T-8 vessels with automated technology.  They completed a 10km journey without human intervention, and SHI is currently implementing autonomous navigation technology on six large and five small additional vessels.  SHI has also announced it has signed a partnership with DNV to develop autonomous shipping functions, and also announced that it is using Amazon AWS cloud services to build an autonomous shipping platform that will enable self-piloting of container ships. Samsung is also leveraging AWS to incorporate machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, analytics, databases, and storage into its smart shipping platform. The technology will be used for initiatives like creating a virtual replica of a ship cockpit for land-based training and simulations.

Zulu Associates, a Belgian innovator in marine logistics that focusses on smaller vessels, expects to put small autonomous container ships into the English Channel or Southern North Sea by 2026. As it relates to navigation, some vessels already have autonomous navigation-related systems on board. For example, the vessel PYXIS OCEAN set sail in August 2023 fitted with a “Windwings” system of sails, which are set and trimmed automatically based on camera, sensor and weather data, rather than by the vessel’s crew. Beyond vessel routing and navigation, additional automation technologies are being tested and deployed. The Yara Birkeland is an electric autonomous 80 m 120 TEU Norwegian-flagged containership launched in Spring 2022. It carries out shuttle voyages between Heroya and Eindangerfjorden in Norway, and has been tested carrying out container loading and unloading operations autonomously.

Autonomous shipping is an emerging and promising field that can transform the maritime industry. It relies on various technologies, such as sensors, cameras, artificial intelligence, machine learning, communication, connectivity, cybersecurity, and encryption, to operate safely and efficiently. However, it also faces many challenges, such as legal, ethical, and social issues, which need to be resolved before it can be widely adopted.

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