IMO takes first steps to develop regulations for autonomous shipping


Shipping regulators are preparing for the eventual coming of MASS: maritime autonomous surface ships.

Much like highway regulatory agencies are struggling to develop guidelines and rules for self-driving cars, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has initiated a scoping process to examine current vessel regulations and adapt them to vessels with varying degrees of control by remote operators or artificial intelligence (AI).

At the 99th meeting of the IMO Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in May, the group established a framework to examine regulations that may need to be altered or updated for vessels that can operate independently of human interaction.

While a remote-control ship seemed like the stuff of science fiction a few years ago, in reality it’s just around the corner.​

Massterly, a Norwegian shipping line, plans to have a vessel under full autonomous control in 2020 to move chemicals in short-sea shipping operations. Rolls-Royce predicts some level of autonomous vessel operation in international waters in the next 10 to 15 years.

Most international and flag state regulations are written under the assumption that there will be crewmembers on board the vessel. And the concept of a “seaworthy” vessel may have to be refined as well. As the technology progresses, regulators are trying to keep ahead of the curve.

One of the IMO’s steps was to establish basic definitions for the four levels of autonomous operations for surface vessels. The steps range from a vessel with some automated processes with seafarers on board to a fully autonomous vessel that operates by itself. A vessel could operate at multiple levels during a single voyage.

The scoping exercise will begin by identifying provisions in a set of current regulations to see whether they apply to ships with some degree of autonomy. The next step will determine the most appropriate way to address autonomous surface ship operation, taking into account technology and human factors.

The initial scoping exercise won’t create or amend any international standards, but it will identify instances of alignment or conflict within the existing standards, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Benjamin Hawkins said during a panel discussion at the 97th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in January. The TRB is a program unit of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Hawkins noted that existing regulatory regimes are based on the assumption that licensed mariners are on board a vessel, but as vessels become more autonomous that may not be the case. For example, regulations call for a vessel to have a lookout, but standards have to be created to define what constitutes a lookout and how to write regulations to ensure technology can safely fulfill that duty.

While the role of licensed seafarers may change as remotely controlled vessels become more common, regulations concerning safety and security will not be compromised while allowing for flexibility in adopting the new technology, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said at the MSC meeting. The IMO’s efforts are targeted at developing regulations proactively rather than taking a wait-and-see approach.

As for enforcement in the United States, “I would never foresee see the day when the Coast Guard will lessen the requirements for safe navigation or those people in charge of safe navigation,” said Grady Hurley, a New Orleans-based maritime lawyer. “The question is how do you proactively implement (regulations) and not wait for a casualty to happen and then react to it.”

By Professional Mariner Staff