IMCA's marine technical adviser Capt Andy Goldsmith analyses IMO's decision to review autonomous surface shipping
Autonomous shipping made its way onto IMO’s agenda in May 2018. IMO recognised that it should take a proactive and leading role on the subject, given rapid technological developments in the operation of various autonomous modes of ships. It is to conduct a “Regulatory scoping exercise for the use of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS)” for completion by 2020.
IMO has agreed four degrees of 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.
IMCA supports the regulatory scoping exercise, which will take place in two stages: the identification of relevant provisions in IMO instruments applicable to MASS; and an analysis to determine the most appropriate way of addressing MASS operations, considering, for example, human factors, technology and operational factors.
"Conventional shipping is not going to disappear any time soon; the most realistic scenario is that conventional and autonomous ships will coexist and share the same waters"
In addition, a Correspondence Group on MASS has been established under the coordination of the flag state of Finland. The group will test the framework and methodology of the scoping exercise, conduct an initial analysis of safety of life at sea regulations, make suggestions for improvements, and submit a report to IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee in December 2018.
Once the scoping exercise is completed, and subject to agreement by IMO member countries, work is likely to commence to revise the regulations, although it is understood that IMO’s intention is for the existing international framework to remain intact.
Conventional shipping is not going to disappear any time soon; the most realistic scenario is that conventional and autonomous ships will coexist and share the same waters. However, if autonomous shipping is to be successful, IMO will need to address a number of predicaments, such as liability and compensation issues, cyber risk management, maintenance and operation, and the human element.
There is a possibility that national rules for domestic shipping may emerge while IMO is still conducting its scoping exercise for MASS. Hopefully, this will not lead to a national fragmentation of rules, but rather as input to a future international harmonisation of the regulatory framework.
MASS in the offshore sector
While autonomous ships operating globally might seem a long way off, in the shorter term we might expect to see experimental or developmental OSV units operating in national waters.
For instance, Kongsberg Maritime is working with Automated Ships Ltd and Bourbon to finance a prototype OSV, Hrönn, that will work in the offshore energy, hydrographic, scientific, and offshore fish-farming industries. It could also be used as an ROV and AUV support ship and standby vessel to provide firefighting support to an offshore platform in cooperation with manned vessels.
In August 2017, Wärtsilä successfully tested the remote control of a ship’s operations through a sequence of manoeuvres using a combination of dynamic positioning (DP) and manual joystick control. Using a Gulfmark Offshore vessel in the North Sea, the remote-control navigation was carried out from Wärtsilä’s office in San Diego, California, 8000 km away.
For vessels to become fully autonomous, new requirements are needed in sensor capabilities, decision algorithms, ship-to-shore communication, machinery design and maintenance, onshore control centres and cyber security.
Progress is being made to improve these aspects. It does not take much imagination to envisage OSVs operating either fully or partially autonomously, but autonomy should not be a goal in itself. Instead, autonomy should be used to improve safety, reliability and efficiency of operations.