China’s Autonomous Cargo Shipping Alliance – Digital Unmanned OBOR Maritime Deliveries

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Indicative that new digital automation is arriving faster along OBOR routes, the marine classification society, the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), has joined the Unmanned Cargo Ship Development Alliance (UCSDA) –  a group of classification organizations, shipyards, equipment manufacturers, and ship designers that seek to advance autonomous shipping. The alliance intends to deliver a working autonomous cargo ship by October 2021, with a design that integrates independent decision-making, autonomous navigation, environmental perception, and remote control.
The Unmanned Cargo Ship Development Alliance is chaired by HNA Group, a Fortune Global 500 conglomerate based in Shanghai. HNA’s logistics division has interests in shipbuilding, marine engineering, and bulk trading, and it is on the verge of acquiring Singapore-based logistics firm CWT. Beyond shipping, it has a diverse US$100 billion portfolio of assets around the world, from real estate to technology to entertainment.

“Through this collaborative effort, we will apply the latest technologies to develop a new autonomous ship concept,” said HNA Technology Group Vice Chairman Li Weijian. “The newly formed alliance is advancing new innovations in ship design and operations, and also working to promote the safe adoption of these assets in the market.”

Most of the other alliance members are also Chinese organizations – China Classification Society, China Ship Research & Development Institute, Shanghai Marine Diesel Engine Research Institute, Hudong-Zhonghua Shipbuilding, and Marine Design Research Institute of China (MARIC). Leading marine technology firms Rolls-Royce, whose prototype ship is pictured above, and Wartsila complete the grouping.

“Increased digitization, advanced technologies and new levels of connectivity are changing the way the maritime industry operates,” said ABS Greater China Division President Eric Kleess. “In the coming years, we will see significant changes in the way ships are designed and built, with a strong drive to develop autonomous vessels especially in China.”

“The formation of the UCSDA is another signal that China is very serious about the digital commerce and logistics platforms it is now building” says Chris Devonshire-Ellis of Dezan Shira & Associates “Unmanned ships are far less expensive to operate and will bring the cost of shipping down. These new technologies, armed by 5G connectivity, are shaping future trade along OBOR routes, which can be expected to be among the most hi-tech and efficient in the world. As is always the case, new technologies apply to the newest emerging markets enabling them to grow far more quickly than is generally considered possible. China has already shown what it is capable of and the OBOR maritime and overland routes will be greatly enhanced by the application of these new technologies. Surprises are in store, and Europe needs to be prepared.”


About Us

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Founding Partner and Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates. He is based in Europe. The firm provides European businesses and governments with strategic, legal, tax and operational advisory services to SMEs and MNCs investing throughout Asia and has 28 offices across China, India and the ASEAN nations as well as St. Petersburg and Moscow. Please contact the firm at or visit the practice at


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