Moving closer to rules for maritime autonomous vessels: Local first?

autonomous shipping Fathom.World Yara Birkeland

It's not only the IMO that is looking at maritime regulations to see what may need to change to allow autonomous ship technology, maritime nations are also looking at their rules. It's not an easy job.

Three IMO committees have now scoped out their respective responsible regulations and instruments to assess what may need to change, with the marine environment committee yet to start. But nation states, particularly those pushing ahead with commercial unmanned vessel projects, are pushing ahead of international regulations which could cause problems if they move to far from each other and the IMO work


Autonomous, and notably unmanned ships, are a goal seen by many as a way to improve safety, reduce environmental impacts (notably emissions) and improve economic efficiencies. There are a growing number of commercial actors in this field and some countries see autonomous systems as a key economic driver. To this extent some maritime nations are assessing national shipping regulations in a similar way as the IMO is assessing international ones.


(Bear in mind that IMO member states are expected to bring IMO regulations and amendments into force nationally, once they are ratified and in force internationally).


While IMO scoping exercises of the maritime safety, facilitation and legal committees has been completed, the marine environment protection committee has yet to begin its assessment of environmental regulations. It has been somewhat hampered by having remote meetings as it tries to work through a tough decarbonisation agenda.


However, Norway has clearly done some work as the Yara Birkeland is in the water and cleared for eventual operations in an unmanned condition in its national waters. Japan’s developments are also advancing, the country has plans to make half of its domestic fleet unmanned within 18 years. Finland, South Korea and other countries are also working to ensure they are part of the unmanned movement.

The United Kingdom

The UK has also been working on what may need to be amended in its shipping regulations. Dr. Katrina Kemp, Maritime Autonomy Policy Lead at the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency,  is responsible for a team working on this. She said that work so far has found there is nothing in UK rules that expressly prohibit unmanned or autonomous vessels, but there are some texts that are vague and need clarity. She also pointed to the clear need to not only define the workforce in unmanned operations (seafarers or not?) but the status of operation centres.

While she reiterated, what many are aware of, that regulation lags behind technology development, she said that care has to be taken that national scoping and rule assessment work, such as the UKs,  does not get ahead of the IMO’s.  

Dr Kemp was taking part in the UK’s annual Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group Conference.  The UK has developed Maritime 2050, which includes a move to create a regulatory framework for maritime autonomy. 

As part of its own scoping the UK government an the MCA ran a “Maritime Autonomy Regulation Shipping Lab or MARLab.  


But while this is work in process the industry itself has its own code of conduct and guidelines.

UK Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group, under Maritime UK, issued version four of the code in December 2021, though dated November 2020. The UK’s code not only gives some guidance on responsibilities, but greater depth into definitions. For example, as well as mentioning the IMO defined degrees of autonomy, it also gives levels of control definitions, areas of use and size of vessel (recognizing perhaps that data collecting research units, that are a few of meters in length, differ greatly perhaps from a cargo vessel such as the 80 m Yara Birkeland.

Dr. Kemp referenced the code adding that it had been built up based on the industry’s experience in the UK and is a helpful tool for regulation development.  

While the UK and other countries need to ensure that their work does not get too far ahead of international work and potentially cause problems, Kemp did highlight some areas where international work and national regulations will need significant development to move ahead and keep up to pace with commercial developments. 


Kemp but there was a lot of work still to do to clarify some key aspects, particularly definitions, responsibilities and jurisdiction around autonomous vessel control centres.

Inspection and survey – navigating the change

A key element here is the interaction between international and national maritime regulation and a country’s own HSE (health, Safety and Environmental) regulations that apply for shore side offices and sites of work. With this is much needed clarity on the requirement for merchant regulations relating to inspection and surveys. 


How do inspection regimes need to be considered with unmanned and autonomous vessels? How do surveyors and inspectors gain access to vessels and to control centres that may be in third party jurisdictions.


For manned vessels a flag state or port state has the capability to visit and inspect a vessel, check manning, paperwork and structural conditions amongst other things. If a control centre is somewhere onshore, and in a different country, how will inspections for compliance be undertaken?


Kemp agreed there are questions that need to be discussed about jurisdiction, including how enforcement and sanctions can be applied, but she pointed out that there needs to be rules that span both normal vessels and unmanned/autonomous vessels rather than two sets of regulations.


Additional clarity is needed on whether an unmanned or autonomous vessel under navigation, if there is no human seafarer performing navigational duties? What responsibilities around rescues at sea, stowaways and refugees. Should maritime autonomous vessels carry physical documentation as currently required under current shipping rules.


 “Two of the key areas that we’re trying to do is ensure that if a MASS has to be safely manned, or have a safe manning level, that the personnel operating that vessel – based in a remote operation centre  – can contribute to that manning. So the people aren’t on board but it (the MASS) is still considered safely manned.”


“The other aspect is actually ensuring that those operation centres can be surveyed and inspected in exactly the same way that a vessel can be surveyed and inspected right now. However, that requires us to have the powers to be able to do that. It also requires us to ask the question, where can that remote operation centre be? If it’s to be overseas, what are the implications? What are our abilities? What can we practically do? What can we legally do?


This is a lot of work that needs to be done, said Kemp, but if it (autonomous shipping) does need to be achieved it needs to be so there are no loopholes, no new barriers nor unachievable regulations.


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