Ships with a mind of their own

Do not underestimate the huge amount of regulatory review necessary to bring autonomous ships into the commercial shipping fold

By Michael Grey

With plenty of other things to worry about in the last year or so, we haven’t heard so much about the quest for autonomous shipping. Covid-19 seems to have delayed the commissioning of the Norwegian coaster which will be controlled from ashore, although there has been the occasional news about experiments with remote-controlled tugs. I had a remote-controlled tug when I was about 13, which sank on our local boating lake, but I understand that the modern derivations are rather more advanced.

Serious advances have also been made in the use of autonomous naval craft for mine clearance, while the offshore world appears enthusiastic about their possibilities for seismic and underwater surveys. So, if ships with a mind of their own are to be let loose in the world of commercial shipping, it is important that their regulatory relationship with more conventional ships is fully formulated and understood. As the law stands, for instance, a ship at sea with no-one aboard might be considered a ‘derelict’, which means that anyone passing might put a line aboard and claim salvage! But that is just one of hundreds of laws, rules and regulations which need to be reviewed in the light of a possibly autonomous future.

All of which means that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has been on the case for some time, conducting what has been named a ‘Regulatory Scoping Exercise’ for the use of what are termed Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships, or MASS. In fact, there is a huge body of regulation, contained in all the various IMO conventions, which need to be reviewed as to their application to MASS appearing around the world’s seaways. The scoping exercise has had to be very wide-ranging indeed and has thrown up all sorts of questions that will have to be answered, from the obvious – like the application of the Collision Rules – to the sort of qualifications that will be needed by a remote operator.

Steps forward

There has been important agreement on some of the more basic definitions surrounding ‘autonomy’, with four degrees of autonomy identified. The most basic has been termed ‘decision support’, where there is a degree of automation aboard a ship, with instruments or equipment helping a crew to operate their vessel. You might suggest that we are a long way into this stage already. The second degree provides for a certain amount of remote control, but with seafarers aboard the ship who are able to take control if required. The third and more adventurous degree of autonomy will see a ship with no-one routinely on board, controlled remotely from ashore, with somebody sitting in a comfortable chair looking at the read-outs from all the ship’s sensors. The final degree, which would take a great deal of faith if it is to be applied to commercial shipping, would be full autonomy, with the ship clever enough to make decisions of its own.

The scoping exercise has unsurprisingly found very few IMO regulations that do not need to be evaluated in the light of MASS developments, and they have been sorted into degrees of urgency to make future progress practical, amid all the other work that IMO has to do. The development of maritime law and the role of insurers also have to be considered. Who, for instance, is the ‘Master’ of a ship controlled from ashore with no-one aboard? Who takes liability when something goes badly wrong? Who is in charge?

It has to be said that while there is a lot of enthusiasm among those making sophisticated instruments and clever computers for MASS, the shipping industry is keeping an open, even sceptical, collective mind. The challenge for the promoters of MASS will be not only the development of these vessels, but convincing the industry that there are any advantages in using them. There have, after all, been very advanced ships built in the past, but in most cases their huge capital and development costs has left them unable to compete against conventionally and cheaply manned, more basic vessels. Time alone will tell.