IMO starts critical” review of conventions to suit autonomous ships

Paul Gunton
Paul Gunton

13 December 2018

Delegates at last week’s 100th meeting of IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 100) made some initial steps towards amending IMO conventions to reflect the impact of maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS).

A special session on the meeting’s first day underscored how far technology had come, with presentations made by two companies that have already demonstrated versions of autonomous ships, as reported by ShipInsight last Friday. Our report also described how some countries – in particular Finland and Norway – have developed national rules to allow autonomous ship technology to be tested in their domestic waters. However, international autonomous ship trials and eventual commercial operations will require changes to IMO conventions.

Speaking to ShipInsight last week after a successful demonstration of autonomous technology installed on the Finnish car ferry Falco, Rolls-Royce vice president for innovation Oskar Levander (pictured) said that “it is critical” that IMO now “speeds up rule development” because “there is so much happening that you don’t want IMO to be lagging behind.”


From a technical point of view, he forecast that a commercial transatlantic voyage by an autonomous bulk carrier will be possible by 2025 and he predicted that IMO will at least have guidelines in place by then to support such operations. These could set out exemptions to allow international voyages, he suggested; “we don’t [initially] need full regulations.”

Much of IMO’s regulation potentially clashes with the concept on unmanned ships so MSC 100 established a working group (WG) on its first day to consider how that might be done and report back at the end of the week. Among its working papers was a report from an intercessional correspondence group led by Finland that had been set up by MSC 99 in May this year.

A total of 51 flag states and other organisations had contributed to that work but even more took part in the WG: 68, including 45 IMO member states and 18 non-governmental industry organisations. It was chaired by Sweden.

ShipInsight has been given a copy of the WG’s report, dated last Thursday (6 December), which includes the caveat that its contents “are subject to approval and amendment of a substantive and drafting nature,” so this article will be updated if the report is subsequently changed.

It had two tasks: one was to finalise the framework for a ‘scoping exercise’ to understand the size of the project and the other was to consider principles for developing interim guidelines for MASS trials. The extent of the first task was made clear in the WG’s report. It noted that the time required to conduct an initial review of IMO instruments means that it would not be able to meet the deadlines for submitting a proposal to MSC 101 in April 2019. Not only that, but there will not be a second MSC meeting next year, so it recommended that there should be an intersessional WG meeting in September 2019.

A nine-page annex to the WG’s report detailed how the exercise will be carried out. It included a list of the conventions that would be affected – SOLAS (selected chapters), STCW, COLREG, CSC, LL, SAR, STP and Tonnage – and member states had been nominated to prepare an initial review for most of these by the time the WG submitted its report last week. It included a timeline that ends with it presenting its proposed approach to addressing the implications of MASS to MSC 102 in May 2020. Only after that can the actual work of updating the various instruments begin.

Trials guidelines

As for the interim guidelines for MASS trials, the WG delivered a nine-point set of provisional ‘Principles for the development of guidelines on MASS trials’. Paraphrasing the WG’s report, the guidelines should:

1 Be a single document, addressing administrations, the industry and other relevant stakeholders;

2 Be generic;

3 Not be too technical or prescriptive;

4 Be goal-based, describing functions and goals to be achieved;

5 Encourage information sharing, both with IMO and other stakeholders;

6 Include reporting to the relevant coastal state(s) on the trial(s) to be conducted, so that information on the trials can be passed to all ships in the specified area;

7 Take a precautionary approach to ensure the safe, secure and environmentally sound operation of MASS;

8 Provide that MASS trials are to be in line with mandatory instruments; and

9 Provide that a scope should be specified for each trial (eg, mooring, navigation, new equipment).

Meeting IMO’s emissions targets

As well as urging IMO to develop rules for autonomous ships so as to keep up with technology, Mr Levander pointed to another motivation for the organisation to make progress: it will help IMO meet its target of cutting GHG emissions by at least 50% by 2050, compared with 2008 levels, and to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 40% by 2030 and aim towards 70% by 2050.

Slow steaming is one way of reducing emissions, which is more attractive if the ship is autonomous, he told ShipInsight. And if the ship also has auxiliary wind power, “for a bulker going across the Atlantic we can reduce CO2 emissions by 50-60%” while having no adverse effect on the ship’s earning potential, he said. “So it is in IMO’s interest to develop the [autonomous shipping] rules as quickly as possible to be able to achieve environmental goals.”