In light of the issues surrounding the type approval and suitability of ballast water treatment systems and the uncertainty over the availability of fuels and technology to meet the impending 2020 sulphur cap, the decision by the IMO to begin considering matters surrounding autonomous ships at MSC 98 is not unwelcome.
Among many other issues that will be discussed at the meeting which began yesterday are changes to GMDSS, e-navigation and passenger ship safety. The MSC will also consider proposals for IMO to begin a scoping exercise to determine how the safe, secure and environmentally sound operation of autonomous ships might be introduced into IMO instruments.
There are already some projects around autonomous ships in Norway and Finland that are getting underway and some proponents believe that regular services with unmanned ships will become available in the not too distant future. Last week at Nor-Shipping, ShipInsight discussed the topic with a number of the exhibitors and found that the enthusiasm of some was offset by the doubts of others.
There was some consensus around the fact that the power for an unmanned ship would probably need to be something very simple such as a battery as issues around fuel treatment and oil/water waste separation need frequent human intervention. Although most agreed that remote navigation was not an issue and already quite feasible, there were several questions around maintenance of essential machinery. On short trips that might be overcome but further away from land most considered that with current technology a small crew would still be necessary.
As regards what the IMO will need to discuss, it is obvious that an unmanned ship would not have to comply with sewage treatment rules and need not be required to carry catering, medical and life-saving equipment (which would affect several of the exhibitors at Nor-Shipping). It would also not be able to offer much assistance in an emergency and would not be able to recover persons from the sea as ships do now, however an unmanned ship could quite easily be used by stowaways and others to make illegal passages.
In the long run whether or not autonomous ships become reality will depend upon the attitude of flag and port states and the willingness of owners to invest in such vessels. If, as some suggested, such vessels would appeal only to a very small number of owners then it would seem that those owners would need to retain the vessel for its whole life as it would have almost no resale value.