News from our Members and Partners

12 September 2018

British Ports Association and Setfords Solicitors Publish New Report on Opportunities for UK Ports from Autonomous Shipping

The British Ports Association (BPA) is today publishing a report authored by Setfords Solicitors on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (“MASS”) and the challenges and opportunities for UK ports.

Coastal shipping could be one of the first parts of the UK maritime sector to embrace autonomous shipping and the BPA is encouraging ports to consider the implications on their operations. The report which has been produced as part of the BPA's Port Futures initiative, makes a number of recommendations for ports interested in leading in this fast-emerging area, including smaller ports who could benefit early from autonomous or semi-autonomous coastal shipping and feeder traffic. There are also recommendations for Government in reviewing UK legislation and regulations to ensure they are up to date and flexible to accommodate new technological opportunities.

Published at the beginning of ‘Maritime UK Week’, the report sets out the opportunities for UK ports in preparing for new MASS and the BPA will be sending it to the UK’s Department for Transport for consideration as part of its Maritime 2050 initiative. Initially MASS are most likely to be used for short sea and coastal traffic. This could be within UK and Irish domestic, territorial and inland waters for potentially UK-flagged and registered merchant ships/cargo ships. The primary reason for this is that it will probably take some while for the IMO’s regulatory review to be completed, and the legal and regulatory framework of a single nation state (such as the UK and the Republic of Ireland) will move rather more quickly than the international maritime community.

Richard Ballantyne, Chief Executive of the British Ports Association, said:

“Autonomous ships could soon be a more common feature of domestic and global trade. UK ports have the chance to grasp the opportunity to lead the world in accommodating this change. This development could initially be in the short sea coastal shipping sector and the UK’s wide selection of ports will have an important role to play when this takes off in British waters. As a commercially-led, independent industry that currently has £1.7bn of planned infrastructure investment in the pipeline, we hope this report brings home what policy makers and business leaders can start to consider now to ensure that UK ports are leading the world in this innovative area.”

Some of the challenges will be in the areas of operations and management, safety, security, cyber security and breakdowns in communication systems. There will also be alterations needed to quays for berthing. The opportunities for ports can be seen in terms of increased port jobs in the port services industry requiring high levels of technical skill by shore based operators and back up service providers.  So too, a re-assessment of costs and payment for this new market, possibly having an impact on harbour dues and other commercial agreements.

Andrew Higgs, Commercial Dispute Resolution, Insurance and Legal Risk Management Consultant at Setfords and co-author of the report, said:

“Automation is coming to all sectors of transportation within ports and is part of an evolution in transport, with the advent of automated or driverless cars, trucking and terminals. Both Government and industry need to start thinking about how these changes will affect trade and logistics of tomorrow. Ports in particular should start factoring in the needs of another type of customer; the customer that operates autonomous or semi-autonomous ships.”

The report also makes some recommendations for harbour authorities, including reviewing harbour byelaws to check they could accommodate MASS.

Susan Macpherson, Senior Consultant Solicitor at Setfords and co-author of the report, said:

“We are suggesting an early review of Harbour Regulations to take account of the prospect of harbours receiving semi autonomous and fully autonomous ships in the future. This would ensure that the UK regulatory environment is one that is welcoming for innovative new technologies which will bring new jobs to the UK’s thriving maritime economy as well as the potential environmental benefits of moving more freight by water.”




Created in 1992, the British Ports Association represents the interests of its 100 full members (covering in excess of 350 ports and harbour facilities and terminals of all sizes across the UK), and numerous associate members, to the UK and devolved Governments, the EU and national and international bodies.

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