Fleet Transformation 2017: Getting the autonomous field right


Former Royal Navy commander James Fanshawe, CBE, chairs the Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group at the UK Marine Industries Alliance which brings together a number of trade groups under its umbrella. The group has released a code of conduct for safe operation of autonomous ships and working with regulators to further develop the autonomous vessel future. He retired from the Royal Navy in 2005.
He is one of this year’s speakers and panelists at Fathom’s Fleet Transformation Event in London. Here he explains how the autonomous industry and regulators could co-operate for mutual benefit to ensure safety at sea?

THERE is a very well-ordered structure at sea to minimise the risk of ships colliding and causing accidents; ensuring the safety of all those at sea in whatever kind of craft; reducing the risk to the marine environment through pollution; and setting robust standards to be observed by those who own and operate ships. These regulations are well tried and tested and they work.

Whatever type of vessel you want to take to sea, there is sufficient guidance and direction to ensure that seafarers know what others are doing so that they can operate their own ships safely.

So ships without humans onboard in charge of their movement are entering this environment on an exponential basis. Autonomous, unmanned, remote controlled; these are some of the related words which mean different things to different people when referring to this new breed of craft, but these terms also sow the seeds of confusion.

What people may not understand is that many such vessels are operating at sea today safely using existing procedures.

But the anticipated growth and inherent risk of these kinds of craft has now been recognised by the International Maritime Organisation, which has initiated a scoping exercise to enable the safe, secure and environmental operation of what are called Marine Autonomous Surface Ships, within the existing IMO instruments. This will take time but will be time well spent.

Whilst there is a need to rework the wording of the IMO instruments, this may not prove to be the prime focus for reform.

This is likely to be more of a cultural issue as autonomous shipping takes its place as another variant of the many types of ships already out there. Command and control of these ships is already being exercised by base control stations ashore and this highlights the need for new skills to match the irreplaceable experience of sea time which will remain a key element in ensuring safety at sea even if ‘autonomous crews’ are working from remote locations.

Industry has a very significant part to play by demonstrating a readiness to develop within the existing regulatory framework. The new kids on the block should not expect others to stop going about their business in the way they do now. There is a clear need for a degree of self-regulation and an acceptance of responsibility by the MASS world. This is already happening and we should not be looking for impediments which do not exist today and must not be allowed to stand in the path of future progress.

“The new kids on the block should not expect others to stop going about their business in the way they do now. There is a clear need for a degree of self-regulation and an acceptance of responsibility by the MASS world.”

The world of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (RAI) is growing into a multi-billion currency business. All parties must work together to ensure that we corporately reap the real benefits which RAI affords for all modes of transport. There will be some projects which do not reach their potential. But it is far more likely that the majority will do so.

In any event, regulation must not be allowed to stand in the way of gaining competitive and operational advantage and the signs are very positive that this will not be the case. However, the real onus is on those who are making it their business to develop, own and operate autonomous vessels at sea. They must work closely with the regulators, following existing practices, procedures and codes, particularly while IMO considers the impact on their own instruments.

James Fanshawe, CBE


Chairman, Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulatory Group, UK Marine Industries Alliance.


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