Is autonomous ships safe, secure and sustainable?

Remain flexible to accommodate new technologies to improve efficiency of shipping, while at the same time keeping in mind the role of human and the need to maintain safe navigation.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is looking into how safe, secure and environmentally sound Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) are.
At a recent meeting, the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) endorsed a framework for a regulatory scoping exercise.  First of all, this includes preliminary definitions of autonomous ships and degrees of autonomy.  Also, the MSC is looking into a methodology for conducting the exercise and a plan of work.
An autonomous ship is defined as a ship which, to a varying degree, can operate independently of human interaction.

Degrees of autonomy

The are four degrees of autonomy.

  • Ship with automated processes and decision support. Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Hence, 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.  After which, the committee will assess whether they are applicable to autonomous ships and/or whether they may preclude MASS operations.
As a second step, the committee will conduct an analysis to determine the most appropriate way of addressing MASS operations.  Certainly, it will address human element, technology and operational factors.
The MSC, which was meeting for its 99th session (16-25 May), established a correspondence group to undertake the scoping exercise.  The group will report on the result at the next session, MSC 100 (3-7 December 2018).
The correspondence group will test on the following issues.

  • Recovery of persons from the water
  • Carriage requirements for carriage of shipborne navigational equipment and systems
  • Information for the master
  • Emergency towing arrangements and procedures
  • Navigation bridge visibility

Treaties under consideration

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); and special trade passenger ship instruments (SPACE STP, STP).
Therefore, the integration of new and advancing technologies must balance the benefits derived against the following factors.

  • Safety and security concerns
  • Impact on environment and on international trade facilitation
  • Potential costs to the industry
  • Impact on personnel, both on board and ashore

IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim highlighted the importance of remaining flexible to accommodate new technologies and so improve the efficiency of shipping.
Besides that, it is also important to keep in mind the role of the human element and the need to maintain safe navigation.  This is to further reduce the number of marine casualties and incidents.

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