First ever standard contract for autonomous ship operation underway


BIMCO is adapting the currently used SHIPMAN 2009 agreement for use with autonomous ships, but the lack of actual autonomous ships currently in operation will mean ongoing adjustments as the industry forges ahead with its pioneering projects. Publication of the first version is expected in 2021.

The digitalisation of the shipping industry manifests itself in many ways from port and ship optimisation to electronic bills of lading. But the issue that often seems to generate the greatest debate is the development and operation of autonomous ships.

For autonomous ships to operate within the industry’s existing commercial framework we will need standard contracts. These will not be charter parties, at least not to begin with, because autonomous ships are being built to serve on dedicated trades for their entire working life.

The companies ordering the first generation of autonomous ships are in most cases not “maritime” companies but instead users of shipping transportation services. We expect to see the first autonomous ships being operated by third party ship managers. They may act not only as technical managers for the ship but also provide the remote control centre and the personnel to operate the ship either ashore or on board.

SHIPMAN 2009 as foundation

BIMCO’s response is the development of a specially adapted version of its widely used SHIPMAN 2009 agreement. The ship management sector is already familiar with the “service based” structure of SHIPMAN and it has been a relatively easy task to add autonomous ship-related services and to build in provisions for the operation and manning of a remote control centre.

Based on current forecasts, by late 2021 the first generation of cargo-carrying autonomous ships will be operating within the territorial waters of some countries. Those ships will most likely have a crew on board initially from launch but will quickly transition to being operated from a remote control centre. Full autonomous ships operating independently of even a remote control centre may yet be many years away. But technology is developing rapidly and what was once thought of as science fiction is now well within our grasp. 

No operational ships 

The challenge faced by BIMCO in creating what we are currently calling “AUTOSHIPMAN” is that there are no autonomous ships currently in operation. Many of the provisions of the new agreement are based on assumptions and expectations. However, we are very fortunate to have the benefit of expertise provided by three ship management firms – Wilhelmsen; Anglo Eastern and NYK LNG Shipmanagement – all of whom are working on autonomous ship projects – together with valuable input on the insurance and liability aspects from ITIC and Gard and with legal advice provided by HFW.

AUTOSHIPMAN is due for publication next year and we expect it to be welcomed by a small - but pioneering - market. There is no doubt that in the years that immediately follow the publication of AUTOSHIPMAN we will learn a great deal about the realities of operating autonomous ships. We may even see their use spread to international trade. As we learn more we will refine and adapt AUTOSHIPMAN to meet the needs of this emerging technology.

Grant Hunter
in London,


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