IMO Prepares for Autonomous Ship Regulation Amendments


The field of technology is rapidly growing and relying more and more on automated systems. In the shipping industry, the application of such technology will usher in an era of unmanned ships that are fully independent. To adapt to this trend, the International Maritime Organization will review the current regulations pertaining to Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) in 2019.


Two meetings were previously held by IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in May and December of 2018.


The December 2018 meeting marked MSC’s 100th session, where the committee completed an initial regulatory scoping exercise on unmanned ships. The exercise consisted of the assessment of IMO instruments conducted by the MSC to explore their application to ships with varying degrees of autonomy.


For this assessment, a methodology was formulated and a correspondence group conducted validity tests on the methodology. After a thorough review, the framework and methodology for the regulatory scoping exercise on MASS gained approval from the MSC.


To establish the parameters of the ship category, the varying degrees of autonomy were identified for the purpose of the scoping exercise.


  • Degree one: Ship with automated processes and decision support. In this case, although the ship features technological advance in equipment, seafarers remain on board to monitor, operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Certain operations may be automated and occasionally unsupervised. However, seafarers on board are prepared to take over when necessary.


  • Degree two: Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board. The ship is controlled and operated from another location but remain manned, such that seafarers can take over and operate the shipboard systems and functions.


  • Degree three: Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board. The ship is controlled and operated from another location.


  • Degree four: Fully autonomous ship. This is similar to degree three but it differs in that remote access to the ship is virtually zero and the ship’s onboard operating system automates its decisions and determines its actions or responses to various conditions.


    The MSC considered how IMO instruments would apply to or inhibit the operation of autonomous ships based on the above mentioned categories.


    IMO recognizes this positive development for autonomous vessels. Thus, in anticipation of the possibilities and to address this development, IMO seeks to optimize appropriate means by taking into account various factors, such as technological, human element, and operational aspects to pinpoint the necessary amendments to existing instruments or needs for new instruments.


    The MSC targets completion of the regulatory scoping exercise in 2020. IMO plans to hold an inter-sessional working group by the end of Q3 to discuss the outcomes of the analysis and formulate the next initiatives before target completion.


    The scoping exercise will include IMO instruments, such as SOLAS, Standards for Training, Crewing and Watchkeeping, collision regulations and those that cover ship loading and stability. As a refresher, regulations on search and rescue, tonnage measurement, container safety and special trade passenger ships will also be incorporated in MSC’s MASS scoping exercise.


    MSC will discuss trial and guidance proposals at its next session (MSC 101) on June 5-14 2019. As such, the committee established a working group to develop guidelines for testing and trials of autonomous ships. These guidelines are generic and goal-based and aimed to provide organizations looking into mass trials with reference for precautionary approaches to ensure safe, secure and environmentally sound operations.


    Polar Code Amendments


    In December 2018, MSC considered extending the requirements of IMO’s Polar Code to consider various types of vessels and improvements in navigation safety. Currently, SOLAS chapters V and IV cover all ships on all voyages and cargo ships of 300 GT onward, respectively.


    Cargo ships of less than 500 GT, pleasure yachts, naval ships and fishing vessels are outside of the coverage of SOLAS and the Polar Code. However, these vessels are increasingly voyaging to polar regions. Thus, the next MSC session in June will cover communications, voyage planning and navigation safety for this category.


    MSC aims to prepare a preliminary draft text that extends the application of the Polar Code to all ships covered by SOLAS chapter V. For ships outside this coverage, the committee will pen additional SOLAS chapters into the existing Polar Code to cover voyage planning and navigational safety. In the meantime, MSC will develop interim measures this year.


    Upcoming Key IMO 2019 meetings


    February 4-8

    Ship Design and Construction (SDC 6)


    February 18-22

    Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR 6)


    March 4-8

    Ship Systems and Equipment (SSE 6)


    April 29 - May 3

    Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping (HTW 6)


    May 13-17

    Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 74)


    June 5-14

    Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 101)


    July 15-19

    IMO Council (122)


    September 9-13

    Carriage of Cargoes and Containers (CCC 6)


    November 25- December 5

    IMO Assembly (31)