Analysing a new age of autonomous vessels

Analysing a new age of autonomous vessels
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The International Maritime Organization answers the questions of Government Europa on how the next generation of autonomous vessels can be regulated to ensure safety for all involved.

With a myriad of emergent new technologies on the horizon of the maritime industry, such as autonomous vessels, it is vital that regulations are established to ensure the safety, security and efficiency of a new generation of ships. In May, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) – responsible for regulating international shipping – initiated its work into analysing the safety, security and environmental aspects of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). Under this, IMO will look towards how such vessels can be addressed under the instruments of the organisation. The International Maritime Organization answers the questions of Government Europa on how the next generation of vessels can be regulated to ensure safety for all involved.

How could autonomous vessels transform Europe’s maritime activities? What kind of issues could it eradicate?

This is not really a question we can answer, as there are many variables in Europe’s maritime activities which are outside IMO’s sphere. IMO, as the global regulatory body, sets the regulations for safe, secure and efficient shipping and for prevention of pollution by ships.

It is important to remember that when we talk about integrating new technologies in shipping, we need to balance the benefits derived from new and advancing technologies against:

  • Safety and security concerns;
  • The impact on the environment;
  • International trade facilitation;
  • The potential costs to the industry; and
  • Their impact on personnel, both on board and ashore.

At 2017’s meeting of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), a plan to conduct a series of scoping exercises on MASS was scheduled. As the first stage of that scoping exercise was conducted in May, what safety implications have been identified as a result?

The scoping exercise at the moment is aimed at looking at the current regulations in relation to maritime autonomous surface ships. What we are looking at now is how the rules already adopted could be applied to a ship in various modes of autonomy. So, we are looking at each regulation and seeing whether it would apply to a ship in an autonomous mode, whether it would not apply at all, or do we need to have a new rule specifically for autonomous ships?

In order to carry out the scoping exercise of existing IMO regulations, and how they may pertain to MASS operations, IMO’s MSC has identified four different degrees of autonomy (in non-hierarchical order), recognising that a ship may operate at different degrees within a single voyage:

  • Ship with automated processes and decision support: Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Some operations may be automated.
  • Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location, but seafarers are on board.
  • Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. There are no seafarers on board.
  • Fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

For the purpose of the regulatory scoping exercise, a “Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS)” is defined as a ship which, to a varying degree, can operate independently of human interaction.

The IMO scoping exercise will look at provisions in a number of treaties adopted by IMO over the years to set the rules for safe, secure and environmentally-friendly shipping.

These include the rules on:

  • Construction, design and equipment in the IMO Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention;
  • Collision regulations (COLREG);
  • Rules on search and rescue at sea (SAR);
  • Training of seafarers and fishers (STCW, STCW-F);
  • Loading and stability (Load Lines);
  • Tonnage measurement (Tonnage Convention); and
  • Special trade passenger ship instruments for transport of large numbers of passengers, such as pilgrims, on certain voyages (SPACE STP, STP).

All European Union member states are also member states of IMO and (in the main) party to the IMO treaties under consideration. So, outcomes of IMO considerations may inform policy and regulation within the EU.

Have any vessels been identified by the MSC, or IMO, which show elements of potential for widespread deployment?

That has not been the aim of the Maritime Safety Committee at this stage. As a regulatory body, IMO is looking at the regulations and carrying out a scoping exercise. This is what the member states have requested. For now, fully autonomous ships are small in scale and may be for very specific purposes, such as surveying and so on. However, we do know that a number of countries and companies have expressed interest in autonomous shipping.

For example, Norway and Finland have test areas for trials of autonomous vessels; Denmark has been active in calling for international regulation on autonomous ships; and the United Kingdom ship register has under its flag the ASV C-Worker 7 autonomous vessel. There are also research projects under way, for example, the EU’s FP7 project, Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks (MUNIN) aims to develop a concept for an autonomous dry bulk carrier.

These are just some examples. The company building the YARA Birkeland, for example, plans to be able to operate it in autonomous mode from 2020. This ship is going to be quite small – able to carry around 100 containers. The big container ships operating today can carry more than 18,000 containers. So big ships operating in fully autonomous mode could be some years away, perhaps decades.

For now, fully autonomous vessels are small, while most predictions are that autonomous or semi-autonomous operation would be limited to short voyages, for example from one specific port to another, across a short distance.

How will the MSC continue its activities in looking at MASS going forward? And how will IMO and the MSC be involved in the debates and discussions surrounding autonomous vessels in Europe?

The first stage is the scoping exercise. The scoping exercise, planned to be completed by 2020, will identify current provisions in an agreed list of IMO instruments and assess how they may or may not be applicable to ships with varying degrees of autonomy, and/or whether they may preclude MASS operations.

As a second step, an analysis will be conducted to determine the most appropriate way of addressing MASS operations, taking into account inter alia: the human element, technology and operational factors.

As far as being involved in the debates, European countries, as member states of IMO, are invited to share their views and experiences with IMO. IMO and its meetings, like the Maritime Safety Committee, provide the fora where regulatory issues that impact on global shipping can be discussed. Member states (and NGOs in consultative status) can submit papers giving their views and experiences, such as research study outcomes. We also often see member states sharing their experiences, for example in side-event presentations during an IMO meeting.

Natasha Brown
Media and Communications Officer
International Maritime Organization
Tweet @IMOHQ
media@imo.org
www.imo.org

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