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No rules on autonomous ships for another 10 years – at least

IMO scoping study on autonomous ships unlikley to result in new regulations until the 2030's despite member states seeking to be technology market leaders, write Craig Eason.

International rules on the deployment and requirements are unlikely to be in force for more than 15 years despite rapid advances in robotics and a growing number of large vessel projects propelling the industry forward. Talking to Fathom World for the latest Aronnax Podcast, Henrik Tunfors at the Swedish Transport Agency, said it was not likely that an rules changes at the International Maritime Organization would appear until the 2030’, probably late 2030’s.

Tunfors is managing a current scoping exercise that is assessing what may or may not need to be looked at within the IMO’s current long list of conventions, regulations, guidelines and other instruments that have been written over the decades to ensure the safety of international shipping.

But Tunfors also says that the lack of rulemaking at the IMO on autonomous and unmanned vessels on the high seas was unlikely to stop the ongoing development of trials and individual projects.

The IMO’s regulations are generally written to be applied only to international shipping over a specific size and imply the need for people onboard. The safety related rules are largely part of the Safety of Life at Sea convention, which applies to cargo ships over 500 gross tonnes in size, and then there is the convention of standards of training, certification and watchkeeping of seafarers which, amongst other things, stipulates issues such as education and manning levels on ships.

The current rule book from the IMO does not necessary apply to smaller vessels, especially operating in the coastal waters of only one country, as then that country can offer separate exemptions and permissions.

Tunfors says this is welcome as it allows the test beds to be developed to demonstrate the robustness of the technologies at the same time as the rule makers look at the regulations

Crew in the loop – training

Henrik Tunfors recognises that one issue that will need to be decided is how the future seafarer is defined. Unmanned and autonomous systems will not be operating without human oversight says Ørnulf Rødseth from Sintef Ocean in Trondheim, Norway who focuses on autonomous system development at sea. While he says there may not be any pressing need right now, the more autonomous shups come into service, mixing with manned vessels in coastal fairways, roads and coastlines, the more the need to understand the competence and training of any shore based staff that will be considered “Human in the loop”.

Tunfors agrees that the topic of how to define a seafarer ashore needs to eb addressed and it is one of the IMO scoping exercise agendas, it has not been agreed yet how the IO can regulate on the training and competence of a land based role.

Current defintiions

While the IMO has a long way to go to create rules on the use of unmanned autonomous cargo vessels on the high seas, it has created guidelines of test areas as well as a 4 stage definition of autonomy.

  • Degree one: Ship with automated processes and decision support: Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Some operations may be automated and at times be unsupervised but with seafarers on board ready to take control.
  • Degree two: Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. Seafarers are available on board to take control and to operate the shipboard systems and functions.
  • Degree three: Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. There are no seafarers on board.
  • Degree four: Fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

“There is an increasing amount of automation on the ship and I guess you could argue that STCW is not up to date on the possibilities you have today,” says Rødseth. “What is clear is that if you move people to shore then you will have some challenges in training that have to be addressed”. But there are already trial projects with vessels set to test this, and the most widely known one is the Yara Birkeland in Norway. Pia Meling, from Massterly, the joint venture ship manager set to look after Yara Birkeland confirms that the topic is already being addressed  through a project between Massterly, Wilhelmsen Ship Management and the Norwegian University. This includes training courses, simulators development as well as workload assessments and psychological evaluations.

When Yara Birkeland is eventually put into service – the project has currently stalled due to the COvid-19 related lockdown and recession as we as other infrastructure issues not related to the vessel – it will be operated as a manned coastal vessel, before being run as an unmanned vessel. Meling says that about two yeas after it will then be run autonomously. The people who will be in the Massterly control centre will be trained and experienced seafarers.

About Author

Craig Eason Stockholm
Craig Eason is the owner and editorial director of Fathom.World. He has a background in the shipping industry having started his career as a cadet on oil tankers and gas carriers before becoming a navigating officer on a range of vessel types. A change in career, with ensuing university studies, and he has now gained 20 years experience in written and broadcast journalism. He now is in demand as a knowledgeable and competent editor and event host and moderator, both for in-house events and ones for the public.

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