Interest in remotely controlled and autonomous vessel technology is growing, but can international regulations keep up?
Autonomous vessels will undoubtedly play a role in future shipping strategies, and as the technology develops, so the potential for such vessels increases. Current projects and studies underway include applications that range from container ships to workboats, but the missing piece of the puzzle – the elephant in the room – is the absence of a well-defined regulatory scheme to govern their use.
Last year, IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) laid the groundwork for such regulations by approving a framework and methodology for a regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) at its 100th session (MSC100).
Over the first half of this year, IMO’s MSC will analyse and determine the most appropriate way of addressing MASS operations taking into account, among other things, the human element, technology and operational factors.
An intersessional MSC working group will meet this coming September to move forward with the process, with the ambitious goal of completing the regulatory scoping exercise in 2020.
During the regulatory scoping exercise, the MSC will cover how MASS operations are impacted by SOLAS, collision regulations, loading and stability, seafarer training search and rescue, tonnage measurement, safe containers and special trade passenger ship instruments.
“I see an autonomous system working on behalf of a captain, mate or helmsman to empower operations with vessel intelligence”
But one of the key regulatory challenges is to define what is actually meant by an ‘autonomous ship’ according to Bureau Veritas (BV) global technology leader smart ships Najmeh Masoudi, who explained: “IMO is looking at SOLAS and its other codes to develop a gap analysis to define the criteria required to provide a definition before developing a regulatory framework for autonomous shipping.”
Najmeh Masoudi (Bureau Veritas): “There are potential challenges on the horizon when the regulatory regimes transition to business-as-usual commercial operations”
At its session in December, the MSC defined provisional degrees of autonomy for its scoping exercise:
- 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.
However, Lloyd’s Register (LR) external relations coordinator Paul Carrett says the degrees outlined by the MSC “are not yet a useful way of comparing vessels or usefully understanding their technical ability.” He emphasises that it is more important for a designer or operator to understand the operational context by which their autonomous vessel will be operated, managed and controlled: “For example, via a full onboard crew, reduced onboard crew, via direct remote control or via remote monitoring – an understanding of this then allows the correct assurance approach to be taken.”
Over recent years, the major classification societies have developed their own guidelines for autonomous shipping, that outline varying degrees of autonomy. Guidelines for Autonomous Shipping, for instance, from Paris-based BV, provide the basis for a risk assessment of ships using autonomous systems. The guidelines offer goal-based recommendations, setting a minimum level of functionality for essential systems and guidance for improving system reliability, including quality assurance. In addition, BV has provided practical notations and guidance addressing cyber security, a major concern for autonomous vessel operation and control.
Of course, the guidelines, like the technology, are continuously evolving and this year, Ms Masoudi said that BV will publish a revision to its autonomous shipping guidelines first published in 2017.
And while the guidelines evolve, so too does the terminology, which if not standardised and clear, can result in confusion. Mr Carrett stressed the importance of having consistent terminology throughout the industry, including regulatory bodies, class societies and technology providers.
BV has projects underway in the areas of autonomy, including the Smart Ship Programme, a strategic partnership with Paris-based offshore operator Bourbon which aims to optimise the safety and reliability of vessel operations. “The project focuses on redefining bridge ergonomics, improving dynamic positioning (DP) automation through data collecting and analysis, and protecting ships and the environment,” says Ms Masoudi. She adds: “The aim of the Smart Ship programme is to increase the level of automation by enabling ships to transmit data to engineers on shore for analysis and troubleshooting, thereby reducing the number of personnel on-board.”
The first application of the Smart Ship programme involved the real-time verification of the DP operations of the Bourbon fleet. BV is certifying the digital survey systems. and both partners are also addressing cyber security issues.
Another pilot project involves Norway's Kongsberg Maritime, a strategic partner of Bourbon. Implemented on the Bourbon Explorer 508, operating in the waters around Trinidad, the project will collect data from the vessel’s DP system, with the aim of facilitating remote DP trials on an annual basis. The project, if successful, will also support the development of decision-making and verification applications for both offshore crew and onshore support teams.
“Technological change can happen rapidly; regulatory change typically does not”
The project will also address cyber security threats, helping identify and mitigate risks linked to data collection and communication between Bourbon’s vessels and onshore infrastructure.
BV is also engaged in other research and development projects, performing studies for autonomous and unmanned ships, including the Dutch Autonomous Shipping Joint Industry Project.
Discussing the successful remote control of the 28 m harbour tug Svitzer Hermod in Copenhagen Harbour in 2017, LR’s Mr Carrett says: “We have been working with [Rolls-Royce] since the start of this project and their predictive maintenance is one of the foundational technologies with regards to autonomy…When the aim is to take people off an asset, you have to find another way to understand the health of the asset using technology.”
The UK-based class society has also certified various onboard systems to its Digital Ships ShipRight procedure, including the energy management system on the 20,000 teu container ship COSCO Shipping Aries and the air handling unit and elements of the navigation, cargo and machinery systems of the LPG carrier Trammo Dietlin.
While autonomous shipping has undoubtedly captured the imagination, there will inevitably be those involved in the OSV sector that question exactly how the concept will add value to their proposition. Sea Machines Robotics chief executive Michael G. Johnson can answer that question: “The main reasons for autonomous technology are its ability to provide improved performance and productivity.”
Boston Harbor Cruises and Sea Machines are collaborating in data collection and system testing
The Boston-based company has developed autonomous technology that can be installed in existing or newbuild commercial vessels. “Autonomous technology provides significant value in areas of routine operations,” says Mr Johnson. “A large percentage of OSV work is routine, such as regular transits, tracking or loitering. I don’t see heavy cargo OSVs operating unmanned in the foreseeable future. What I do see is an autonomous system working on behalf of a captain, mate or helmsman to empower operations with vessel intelligence and to de-risk and elevate overall vessel performance.”
Mr Johnson expects some of the first applications of autonomous vessel technology to be in heavily routine or dangerous tasks, such as long-duration data collection by survey vessel, or oil spill response activity.
“The dull, dirty or dangerous tasks can carried out by small vessels capable of operating autonomously”
Elaborating on the theme, Mr Carrett says there are numerous benefits to implementing autonomous vessel technology. “Autonomous vessels offer an opportunity to reduce offshore manning whilst maintaining presence. The key benefits are being able to use smaller autonomous and unmanned vessels to deliver capabilities currently provided by larger, costlier manned vessels, which is particularly effective when autonomous, unmanned vessels are teamed with manned vessels.” He says that this allows for the “dull, dirty or dangerous tasks” to be carried out by small vessels capable of operating autonomously, or under the close control of a support vessel.
“Initially,” he says, “operators should expect to see benefits through increased productivity, but should not expect to see a reduction in manning due to the support crews necessary to operate and maintain the autonomous, unmanned vessels. Access and bandwidth on communication networks will also be a short-term limitation, which may constrain operations to line of sight or remote monitoring only.”
While technology has been a central focus of the autonomous vessel discussion, Mr Carrett cautions against neglecting one of the other key parts of the equation – people. “The human element plays a large part in the safety and viability of autonomous vessel operations – a key requirement is that any human presence should be sustainable.”
Ms Masoudi also tried to rein in expectations regarding the development of regulations for autonomous vessels. “Technological change can happen rapidly. Regulatory change, on the other hand, typically doesn’t,” she said.
She encouraged the marine industry to work together ahead of regulation. “This is the key to getting regulations right and fit for purpose,” she said.
“People should not expect a ‘result’ from the IMO in the short-term,” she said. “The IMO has commenced working but the initial remit is not to amend regulations but to understand the impact the introduction of MASS will make to the current regulations. Operators should expect to work closely with local regulators, most of whom are taking a proactive approach.”
Ms Masoudi warned that there are still hurdles for the industry to clear when it comes to autonomous vessels. “There are potential challenges on the horizon when the regulatory regimes transition from one-off acceptances for demonstrator purposes to business-as-usual commercial operations and operators should be careful to plan for commercial operations and not just technology demonstrators to ensure safety controls are feasible and sustainable.” She concluded: “We will likely first see test cases of specific systems designed to fulfil a specific purpose, then we will need to address the specific regulations around that specific function, and that will slowly build up, particularly in a regulated environment like shipping.”