In its considerations of autonomous shipping, the IMO is currently undertaking a scoping exercise that is aimed at determining which aspects of SOLAS will need changing and what new rules might be needed. This is a work in progress and is not expected to be completed until late 2020 but some progress has been made in agreeing on definitions of autonomy. As far as the IMO is concerned there are four degrees of autonomy identified for the purpose of the scoping exercise, which are:
- Degree one; ship with automated processes and decision support: Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Some operations may be automated and at times be unsupervised but with seafarers on board ready to take control.
- Degree two; remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. Seafarers are available on board to take control and to operate the shipboard systems and functions.
- Degree three; remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. There are no seafarers on board.
- Degree four; fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.
Quite clearly there must be rules governing the interactions between ships and understanding of standard procedures that are demanded for safety reasons. Until the IMO has completed its deliberations on the issue of autonomous shipping, it will be for individual port and flag states to determine what the rules are and what is permitted in the state’s own waters.
A similar situation existed for ships using LNG as a fuel before the IGF Code was adopted. But there is a major difference: the use of LNG as a fuel did not directly affect other ships whereas a vessel that has minimal or no human control interacting with other ships that are conventionally operated could very well be a recipe for disaster. It could also be argued that for the IMO to spend a lot of time and resource on an issue that may not even be commercially viable is a waste of effort that could be better directed elsewhere. A number of countries have delineated areas for testing autonomous ships but how successful the concept proves to be remains a matter of conjecture.
At MSC 100 in December 2018 it was agreed that a review of the IMO instruments under the purview of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) should be conducted during the first half of 2019 by a number of volunteering member states, with the support of interested international organisations. In addition, an intersessional MSC working group is expected to meet in September 2019 to move forward with the process with the aim of completing the regulatory scoping exercise in 2020.
The list of instruments to be covered in the MSC’s scoping exercise 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); Safe Containers (CSC); and special trade passenger ship instruments (SPACE STP, STP).
With particular regard to the testing of autonomous vessels by some member states, MSC 100 noted provisional principles for the development of guidelines on maritime autonomous surface ship (MASS) trials. The principles include ensuring that such guidelines should be generic and goal-based and taking a precautionary approach to ensuring the safe, secure and environmentally sound operation of MASS. Interested parties were invited to submit proposals to MSC 101 in June 2019 taking into account these principles.