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IMO Explores Issues for Regulation of Autonomous Shipping

IMO regulation for autonomous shipping
Concept for autonomous container ships

Published May 25, 2021 6:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

To ensure that maritime regulations keep pace with the technological advancements in autonomous shipping, the International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Safety Committee finalizes an analysis of ship safety treaties seeking to identify the issues required for regulating Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). The scoping exercise, which was initiated in 2017, sought to determine the actions needed by the IMO to ensure safe, secure, and environmentally sound MASS operations.  

The exercise involved assessing a substantial number of IMO treaties and identifying provisions that applied to autonomous ships. The goal was to identify which elements might prevent MASS operations as well as gaps in the regulations and areas that would need to be adapted to either enable or clarify the rules as they pertain to autonomous ships. Among the areas that were reviewed as the SOLAS Convention as well as specific codes as they pertain to operations including fire safety systems, cargoes and dangerous goods, collision regulations, ship, and port security, and other areas governed by the Maritime Safety Committee.

As part of the review, the MSC considered varying degrees of autonomy defining four categories. This includes crewed ships with automated processes and decision support; a remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board; a remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board; and fully autonomous ships. For each, the exercise explored whether MASS could potentially be regulated by existing agreements and regulations, if the existing rules needed to be modified or if new agreements were required.

According to the reports from the committee, the outcome highlighted several high-priority issues, cutting across several instruments, that would need to be addressed at a policy level to determine future work. These involve the development of MASS terminology and definitions, including an internationally agreed definition of MASS and clarifying the meaning of the term “master,” “crew,” or “responsible person,” particularly concerning remotely controlled ships and fully autonomous ships. Other key issues include addressing the functional and operational requirements of the remote-control station/center and the possible designation of a remote operator as a seafarer.  

Further common potential gaps and themes identified across several safety treaties related to provisions containing manual operations and alarms on the bridge, provisions related to actions by personnel such as firefighting, cargoes stowage and securing and maintenance, watchkeeping, implications for search and rescue, and information required to be on board for safe operation.  

The committee concluded that the best way forward to address MASS in the IMO regulatory framework would preferably be in a holistic manner through the development of a goal-based MASS instrument.  Such an instrument could take the form of a “MASS Code,” with the goals, functional requirements, and corresponding regulations, suitable for all four degrees of autonomy, and addressing the various gaps and themes identified. 

The Committee invited Member States to submit?proposals?on how to achieve the best way forward to a future session of the MSC. In addition, the IMO's Legal and Facilitation Committees are also currently in the process of conducting regulatory scoping exercises on conventions under their purview.