Forget autonomous cars – autonomous shipping is the next big thing. IBM has developed an autonomous ship that can sense, think and make decisions at sea with no human captain or crew – and report back to an AI captain.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has jumped on the bandwagon. It has a vision for the nation to have “future-ready ports” that allow autonomous ships and manned ships to co-exist, says David Foo, Senior Director of Operations Technology at MPA.

GovInsider spoke to him to find out how the agency is working towards this vision and incorporating drones and AI into Singapore’s ports.

Ports of the future

MPA is carrying out small-scale pilots to support the development of three autonomous tugs, says Foo. These tests are done with their industry partners and aim to enable operators to use autonomous technologies to enhance productivity and navigational safety, he adds. The agency is also piloting a solar-powered autonomous flotsam collection vessel with ST Engineering.

“Autonomous shipping requires a multi-disciplinary effort,” Foo says. MPA has set up a cross-government agency steering committee to develop policies that support the integration of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). The committee also facilitates test-bedding via regulatory sandboxes, and develops the industry’s capability in autonomous ships.

Singapore has also launched MASSPorts in August this year together with the flag, coastal and port authorities of China, Denmark, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, and the Republic of Korea.

The network aims to address the challenges of autonomous shipping and develop detailed guidelines for MASS trials and operations, says Foo. It will also facilitate port-to-port MASS trials to validate the proposed guidelines and test the interoperability of port-based systems.

AI and drones

Drones are also deployed by port inspectors for surveillance, detection, inspection, incident response and management, says Foo. There has also been “strong interest” in shore-to-ship drone delivery applications, he adds.

“Promising performance and results will pave the way and open up new opportunities in areas of existing use such as surveillance and inspection, as well as new areas of search and rescue, and future autonomous urban mobility,” he says.

“Secured and reliable connectivity” is also crucial to ensuring that drones can operate safely and efficiently at different altitudes and distances from shore, Foo adds.

MPA, the Infocomm Media Development Authority, M1, and Airbus have been conducting coastal 5G standalone network trials since June 2020. The trials assess the suitability of 5G for urban air mobility use cases within the Singapore Maritime Drone Estate located at Marina South Pier.

MPA is also turning to AI to enhance operations. Its digital portal for port services transactions, digitalPORT@SG, will use AI to provide “smart anchorage management services”, says Foo. That will minimise waiting time at anchorage, enhance ship turnaround time, optimise anchorage utilisation and maximise overall port efficiency.

MPA Academy, the training arm of MPA, has also organised AI workshops for the maritime industry, he says. The programmes allow the industry to be “aware of the capabilities of AI, and maritime applications that use AI”.

Mitigating cyber threats

“With increasing digital connectivity, cybersecurity incidents are not a matter of ‘what if’ but ‘when’,” says Foo. “We will always need to remain vigilant and stay ahead of evolving cyber threats.”

MPA adopts a two-pronged approach to cybersecurity. “Firstly, early detection, monitoring and analysis; and secondly, quick response to ensure prompt recovery of services,” he adds.

The Maritime Cybersecurity Operations Centre was set up in May 2019 to conduct 24/7 monitoring and correlate data activities across all maritime Critical Information Infrastructure, Foo says. The centre also detects anomalies and threats, and responds to cyberattacks by analysing activities in the IT environment.

MPA also “took an important step” to launch the Port Authorities Chief Information Officer Cybersecurity Network in October, he adds. The network aims to “enhance cybersecurity awareness within the maritime sector and facilitate early sharing of cyber information”.

The network’s partners include: Abu Dhabi Ports, Port of Antwerp, Port Klang Authority, Port of Kobe, Port of Long Beach, Port of Montreal, Port of Rotterdam and the Port of Seattle.

Upskilling employees

MPA has also partnered SkillsFuture Singapore to update the Skills Framework for Sea Transport, Foo says. The framework provides information on new and emerging skills such as IT and data analytics to equip maritime companies and job seekers with knowledge on what kinds of skills will be required.

The agency also collaborates closely with organisations such as the Singapore Maritime Foundation and Maritime Singapore Connect to bridge the gap between policymakers and the private sector, he adds. It also connects the maritime industry, prospective graduates, and mid-career seekers to relevant resources for recruitment or upskilling.

Autonomous shipping and drones are coming to Singapore’s ports. These innovations are set to transform the nation’s maritime industry, and offer many opportunities to enhance global trade.

Image of David by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore