IMO Moves Ahead With Voluntary Rules for Autonomous Ships

File image courtesy IMO

Published Jun 14, 2023 7:48 PM by The Maritime Executive

The IMO's Marine Safety Committee is moving ahead with a new code for the operation of autonomous ships, recognizing that different requirements prompt the need for a new approach differing from conventional SOLAS regulations. 

SOLAS is specifically designed for human-operated ships, including the STCW requirements for training and qualification of officers and unlicensed crewmembers. IMO MSC is crafting a new, non-mandatory maritime autonomous surface ship (MASS) code for adoption as early as 2025. The new code would apply to SOLAS cargo ships and would augment rather than replace existing IMO rules for safety. 

The code will be based on risk analysis, according to DNV, rather than strict proscriptive guidelines. One thing will not change: the relevant IMO committees all agree in principle that there will be a designated human "master" who is responsible for the operation of each MASS vessel, regardless of the level of autonomy (mode) with which the vessel is operating. 

This designated individual will work from a designated remote operations center (ROC) and will be subject to new, STCW-like training requirements. While they will not be subject to traditional STCW, there will be training, certification and competency standards for their qualification, which will be based on STCW. The definition and qualifications of this new "remote operator" role will be part of the debate leading up to the adoption of the new rule set in 2025. 

The committee agreed that COLREGS will not need amendment at this time to accomodate MASS Code needs, leaving autonomous ships subject to the usual rules for collision avoidance and maintaining a lookout. 

To date, most maritime autonomy testing has occurred in inland waterways, where individual nations have greater say over the rules for navigation. The adoption of specific rules for autonomous ships in international waters would help pave the way for wider adoption of the technology, providing greater assurance for operators and insurers.