IMO Takes First Steps to Address Autonomous Ships
The IMO has officially commenced work to look into how safe, secure and environmentally sound Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) operations may be addressed in IMO instruments.
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. MASS has been defined as a ship which, to a varying degree, can operate independently of human interaction.
The degrees of autonomy are organized (non-hierarchically) as:
• 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 the human element, technology and operational factors.
The MSC, which was meeting for its 99th session (May 16-25), established a correspondence group on MASS to test the framework and methodology agreed at the session and report back to its next session, MSC 100 (December 3-7, 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 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).
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. As the main regulatory body for international shipping, IMO has a fundamental role to play in addressing this matter and leading future developments.”