Autonomous trials raise regulation questions for IMO to address

Autonomous trials raise regulation questions for IMO to address

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 07 December 2018


It has been a busy few weeks for members of the autonomous ship community. You wait since the beginning of time for one to turn up and then, like busses, three come at once, using technology supplied by Wärtsilä, Rolls-Royce and ABB.

As well as their enthusiasm for this technology, there is another link between those projects. Wärtsilä is a Finnish company and Rolls-Royce’s and ABB’s trial voyages took place in Finnish waters. That is not a coincidence: in many areas of technology, Finland has been encouraging interest and investment in start-ups for years. For example, my visit to the country this week coincided with its capital city hosting an event called ‘Slush’, “the world’s leading start-up event where 20,000 tech heads come for more than inspiration,” it says on its website. No wonder my host, Rolls-Royce, had difficulty finding hotel rooms for me and its other media guests.

Finland’s maritime regulators share the ‘Slush’ approach. In an exclusive discussion on board the autonomously-controlled ferry Falco, the director general of the Finnish Transport Safety Agency’s Maritime Sector, Tuomas Routa, explained to me that the country’s approach to policy-making is to create legislation “that provides a certain level of safety but then it leaves a little bit more freedom to operators and designers to come up with new alternative solutions.”

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That, he believes, “is a very positive thing” and he said that Falco was a good example of the sort of project it is designed to foster. “Maybe that has encouraged some developers and companies to come here and to do innovative designs and testing.”

It is a policy that began in 2010 and has evolved in stages over the past eight years, with one over-riding factor at its heart: every time the regulations change, “we make sure that the safety level is the same.” The most recent change was on 1 July this year when an amendment to Finland’s legislation governing ships’ crews and safety management came into force.

Tuomas Routa of Finland's Transport Safety Agency, believes that the country's policies have attracted technology developers

This made it possible to grant exemptions to minimum vessel manning requirements and watchkeeping for testing purposes, enabling reduced manning during autonomous operating tests, such as those performed on Falco. Next in the pipeline is an act covering remote pilotage, expected to come into force during 2019. Subject to obtaining a licence, that will allow new testing opportunities for advanced ship control and navigation technologies.

Finland can do this because the routes used for the tests are domestic and thus have to comply only with national rules rather than any IMO conventions.

Norway has followed a similar route but has reached a slightly different destination. While Finland’s changes allow testing in any of its waters, Norway’s equivalent restricts tests to specified areas, which have numbered three since one was established in December last year off Horten in the Oslofjord, where technology company Kongsberg has offices.

At the time, Kongsberg issued a statement saying that its use of the fjord at Horten for autonomous vessel testing has been “integral to the area receiving its official status as a test-bed.” Kongsberg, of course, will take over Rolls-Royce Marine in March 2019 – assuming it obtains EU approval – creating a broad base of experience in autonomous shipping.

This was not mentioned during this week’s demonstration voyage or at the glitzy reception afterwards, so I asked Mikael Makinen, Rolls-Royce president of commercial marine, what impact Kongsberg’s involvement will have on its autonomous shipping plans. He was not able to say because, “as long as we don’t have the authorities’ approval and the final stamp on the paper, we cannot share information at all.”

As a result, everything that had been described and predicted by the various executives during the day’s activities was based on Rolls-Royce’s existing plans, he confirmed. But he does not expect there to be a change of direction after the take-over, although the two companies will have to address any overlapping projects once the deal goes through. Until then, “we don’t know exactly what they are developing,” he said.

He recalled that his counterpart at Kongsberg – who was not at the reception – had once described his feelings as the deal moves towards its conclusion: “He said it’s like being a child and you have been given a new bicycle but your parents say you can’t ride it yet. You can look at it but you can’t touch it or do anything with it,” Mr Makinen told me.

In May of last year, class society DNV GL published a detailed review of Norway’s then situation and named a number of companies and organisations involved in the country’s autonomous shipping plans. It was based on remarks by Dr Pierre Sames, DNV GL’s director of group technology & research, and he had said then that “there is no legal framework that governs the use of unmanned ships. … To avoid potential conflicts with international law, autonomous ships will not be able to operate in international waters until the IMO develops appropriate regulations, which will take time.”

Another region where autonomous shipping is being tested is Singapore, where Wärtsilä has teamed up with Maritime and Port Authority to collaborate on various aspects of intelligent vessels and other digital technologies. As part of this work, it is working with PSA Marine to develop and test an autonomous harbour tug, dubbed the ‘IntelliTug’, as an initiative under the MPA Living Lab project. “Such projects will enable us to develop new concepts and capabilities that support more efficient operation and regulation of our future port,” said Dr Lam Pin Min, senior minister of state in Singapore’s Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Health.

You can find that quote in an article via the above link, which connects to a page in the website for the organisation One Sea, which describes itself as “a high-profile ecosystem with a primary aim to lead the way towards an operating autonomous maritime ecosystem by 2025.”

That grouping has 12 companies and organisations as members, including all three companies that have so far demonstrated autonomous shipping operations. It is chaired by Sauli Eloranta, senior vice president of technology management and innovation for Rolls-Royce Marine, who told me that by joining forces with other parties, it has a status “like an industrial group related to autonomous shipping,” which he said made it easier to interact with the public sector than each individual company could achieve on its own.

Sauli Eloranta chairs the One Sea organisation, which gives its members a voice in the public debate about autonomous shipping

Our conversation in Finland coincided with the opening day in London of the 100th session of IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 100), which will conclude on Friday 7 December, as this article is published. One of its discussion topics has been to start making plans for a ‘Regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS)’, which will explore “how the safe, secure and environmentally sound operation of MASS may be introduced in IMO instruments,” an IMO statement explained.

Since MSC 99 in May this year, Finland has led a correspondence group about this exercise. It involved 33 IMO member states, one associate member and 17 observer organisations – 51 parties in all, which shows the level of international interest in this topic. They have been working on a document that makes recommendations on how the scoping exercise will be carried out and Finland presented its report to MSC 100 on Monday, since when a working group (WG) has been considering its recommendations and will report back on Friday.

IMO papers are not available to non-delegates until after a committee has finished its work, but ShipInsight understands that the correspondence group’s paper runs to 61 pages and that the US delegation and IMO’s secretariat submitted comments on simplifying the project. The WG has been considering all this material and ShipInsight will report next week on the outcome of the WG’s discussions.

Autonomous shipping also featured in a special session on Monday afternoon that was included to mark its 100th-meeting landmark. It consisted of three papers – one by Kevin Daffey, director, ship Intelligence and engineering & technology for commercial marine at Rolls-Royce. His paper discussed ‘Technology progression of maritime autonomous surface ships’ and he included video material from the Falco demonstration earlier in the day. His slides can be downloaded here.

Also speaking was Timo Koponen, vice president for processing solutions at Wärtsilä Marine Business. The heading picture shows him presenting his views on a 'Smart marine ecosystem approach' to autonomous shipping and his slides can be downloaded here. Presenting comments about the human element in shipping was Branko Berlan, accredited representative to IMO for the International Transport Workers Federation, who posed the question ‘Are seafarers indispensible?’ His slides can be downloaded here. The session was chaired by Dr Tom Allan, a former MSC chair.

Because that session took place while I was in Finland, I cannot report on the event here, but IMO’s secretariat has prepared a summary. It reports that in the discussion period, delegates raised questions about search and rescue operations that might involve autonomous or remote controlled ships and how collision regulations would be complied with. “Most believed that remote-controlled or autonomous vessels would initially operate close to shore,” IMO’s summary notes.

I raised similar concerns with members of the Rolls-Royce project team after the Falco demonstration and I will return to that topic in a later report.

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