The IMO has taken a step forward in their dealings with autonomous ships
“Autonomous ships are the physical manifestation of intelligent mobility”, according to a presentation from Futurenautics’ Roger Adamson. The company’s chief executive and co-founder was speaking at a seminar held by The Shipowners’ Club on “Autonomous Ships & the City” earlier this year, which aimed to identify and explore the growing autonomy of vessels. Mr Adamson’s presentation hammered home the significance that self-governing maritime transport will take on in times to come. Indeed, he pitched autonomous, or unmanned, intelligent transportation is one of the future’s “most disruptive meta-trends”.
“Intelligent transport systems are the veins and arteries of Industry 4.0 [the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies, or the Fourth Industrial Revolution] — they will merge the physical and digital worlds,” he said.
The concept of autonomous shipping is certainly gaining momentum. Last year saw an order placed for what will be the world’s first autonomous ship, the Yara Birkeland; the launch of a voluntary code of practice, from Maritime UK, for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) up to 24 metres long; and registration of the UK’s first autonomous vessel. So far, this year alone has observed the announcement of the world’s first autonomous shipping company (Massterly) and, separately, a venture between Mitsui O.S.K. Lines and Mitsui Engineering & Shipbuilding to develop autonomous vessels, as well as testing of an “‘auto-docking’” ferry in Norway by Wärtsilä. And at the end of May, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), began work on exploring how IMO instruments can address “safe, secure and environmentally-sound MASS operations”.
The organisation’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) had agreed to include MASS on its agenda, through a scoping exercise, at its 98th session in June 2017. However, the 99th meeting of the MSC in May saw the committee endorse a regulatory scoping exercise framework (as work in progress), including preliminary MASS definitions and degrees of autonomy, and “a methodology for conducting the exercise and a plan of work”.
Intelligent transportation is one of the future’s ‘most disruptive meta-trends’
Four autonomy degrees have been identified for the scoping exercise of existing IMO regulations, and how they may pertain to MASS operations, to be carried out. The first is a fully-autonomous ship, whereby its operating system can make decisions and determine actions by itself. The second is a ship with automated processes and decision support, where seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions and some operations may be automated. The third definition is a remotely-controlled ship with seafarers on board, where the ship is controlled and operated from another location. And the final definition is a remotely-controlled ship without seafarers on board, where the ship is controlled and operated from another location. It was noted at the MSC that MASS could be working at one or more autonomy degrees in a single trip. A release about the May 2018 meeting stated that for the regulatory scoping exercise’s purpose, the definition of MASS is “a ship which, to a varying degree, can operate independently of human interaction”.
“The scoping exercise at the moment is aimed at looking at the current regulations in relation to maritime autonomous surface ships,” Natasha Brown from the IMO said. “What we are looking at now is how the rules already adopted could be applied to a ship in various modes of autonomy, so we are looking at each regulation and seeing whether it would apply to a ship in an autonomous mode, whether it would not apply at all, or [whether] we need to have a new rule specifically for autonomous ships.”
Ms Brown explained that the scoping work “will look at provisions in a number of treaties adopted by IMO over the years to set the rules for safe, secure and environmentally-friendly shipping”. These, she noted, include the rules on seafarer and fisher training; collisions; special trade passenger ship instruments for transporting large numbers of passengers (like pilgrims) on certain trips; search and rescue at sea; construction, design and equipment (according to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea); tonnage measurement; and loading and stability.
“The scoping exercise, planned to be completed by 2020, will identify current provisions in an agreed list of IMO instruments and assess how they may or may not be applicable to ships with varying degrees of autonomy, and/or whether they may preclude MASS operations,” she said. “As a second step, an analysis will be conducted to determine the most appropriate way of addressing MASS operations, taking into account, inter alia, the human element, technology and operational factors.”
The IMO’s interest in self-governing ships is shared with those who may end up handling them. In Futurenautics Maritime’s Crew Connectivity 2018 Survey Report — in association with KVH Industries and Intelsat – a whopping 98% of seafarers surveyed said that automation they’d experienced had had a positive effect. What’s more, in the report, 68% of those studied viewed automation as an opportunity, with automation also being one of the three technologies that seafarers felt presented the biggest opportunities. But there is still a long road ahead and much ground to cover before autonomous vessels can really take hold, so those seafarers will have to manually crew ships for some time to come.