IMO completes autonomous vessel regulation analysis

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The Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has completed a regulatory scoping exercise it began back in 2017 to assess the changes required to existing treaties to regulate for the introduction of autonomous ships.

The completion of the scoping exercise at the MSC’s 103rd session in May 2021 paves the way for focused discussions to ensure that regulation will keep pace with technological developments, IMO says.

The scoping exercise involved assessment of existing IMO treaty instruments to identify provisions that apply to Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) or could prevent MASS operations, and what amendments, clarifications or new additions would be required to allow legal autonomous shipping to be carried out.

This included the SOLAS Convention, International Safety Management (ISM) and Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) rules, as well as the STCW Convention and Code and other related instruments.

Varying degrees of autonomy were considered: crewed ships with automated processes and decision support (Degree One); remotely controlled ships with seafarers on board (Degree Two); remotely controlled ships without seafarers on board (Degree Three); and fully autonomous ships (Degree Four). 

High-priority issues highlighted by the exercise included the development of MASS terminology and definitions, including an internationally agreed definition of MASS and clarification of the meaning of the terms ‘master’, ‘crew’ or ‘responsible person’, particularly in Degrees Three (remotely controlled ship) and Four (fully autonomous ship). 

Other key issues include the functional and operational requirements of remote-control stations and the possible designation of a remote operator as a ‘seafarer’. 

Further potential gaps in current regulations were identified in provisions referencing 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. 

MSC has suggested that the development of a new goal-based MASS instrument may be the best way forward to update the regulatory framework, perhaps in the form of a ‘MASS Code’ with goals, functional requirements and corresponding regulations suitable for all four degrees of autonomy.

Member States are invited to also submit their own proposals on how to achieve the best way forward to a future session of the MSC.

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Rob O'Dwyer

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