IMO takes first steps to address autonomous ships

Sarah Carter
Sarah Carter

29 May 2018

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) – the global regulatory body for international shipping - has commenced work to look into how safe, secure and environmentally sound Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) operations may be addressed in IMO instruments.

A press release from IMO said that the Organization’s senior technical body, the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), endorsed a framework for a regulatory scoping exercise, as work in progress, including preliminary definitions of MASS and degrees of autonomy, as well as a methodology for conducting the exercise and a plan of work.

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

To facilitate the progress of the regulatory scoping exercise, the degrees of autonomy are organized (non-hierarchically) as follows (it was noted that MASS could be operating at one or more degrees of autonomy for the duration of 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.

As a first step, the scoping exercise 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.

The MSC, which was meeting for its 99th session (16-25 May), established a correspondence group on MASS to test the framework of the regulatory scoping exercise agreed at the session and, in particular, the methodology, and report back to its next session, MSC 100 (3-7 December 2018).

The Correspondence Group will test the methodology by conducting an initial assessment of SOLAS regulation III/17-1 (Recovery of persons from the water), which requires all ships to have ship-specific plans and procedures for recovery of persons from the water; SOLAS regulation V/19.2 (Carriage requirements for carriage of shipborne navigational equipment and systems); and Load Lines regulation 10 (Information to be supplied to the master).

If time allows, it will also consider SOLAS regulations II-1/3-4 (Emergency towing arrangements and procedures) and V/22 (Navigation bridge visibility).

The Committee further invited interested Member States and international organizations to submit proposals related to the development of interim guidelines for MASS trials to its next session, MSC 100.

The list of instruments to be covered in the MSC’s scoping exercise for MASS includes those covering safety (SOLAS); collision regulations (COLREG); loading and stability (Load Lines); training of seafarers and fishers (STCW, STCW-F); search and rescue (SAR); tonnage measurement (Tonnage Convention); and special trade passenger ship instruments (SPACE STP, STP).

IMO in 2017 adopted Strategic Directions for the Organization, including one on the integration of new and advancing technologies in the regulatory framework - balancing the benefits derived from new and advancing technologies against safety and security concerns, the impact on the environment and on international trade facilitation, the potential costs to the industry, and their impact on personnel, both on board and ashore.

Speaking at the opening of the MSC meeting, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim highlighted the importance of remaining flexible to accommodate new technologies, and so improve the efficiency of shipping, “while at the same time keeping in mind the role of the human element and the need to maintain safe navigation, further reducing the number of marine casualties and incidents”.