The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the global regulatory body for international shipping, has started exploring how autonomous ships could operate safely, securely and in an environmentally friendly way.
As part of its investigation the IMO, which has provided the term Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) to autonomous vessels, will look into how the ship operations may be addressed in IMO instruments.
The organization’s senior technical body, the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), has endorsed a framework for a regulatory scoping exercise as work in progress.
Its framework includes preliminary definitions of MASS and degrees of autonomy, as well as a methodology for conducting the exercise and a plan of work.
For the purpose of the regulatory scoping exercise, MASS is defined as a ship which, to a varying degree, can operate independently of human interaction.
However, MASS could be operating at one or more degrees of autonomy for the duration of a single voyage.
IMO categories for autonomy:
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 IMO's 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 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, inter alia, the human element, technology and operational factors.
The MSC, which met for its 99th session on May 16-25, 2018, established a correspondence group on MASS to test the framework of the regulatory scoping exercise agreed at the session and, in particular, the methodology, and report back to its next session, MSC 100 on December 3-7, 2018.
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”.