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Are we there yet?

Regulation is catching up with autonomous vessels

IMO turns its attention to autonomous vessels. In order to standardize rules that govern shipping autonomy, its Maritime Safety Committee has approved guidelines for trialing to take place. Could that finally mean full steam ahead for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS)?

The promise of MASS could be one step closer to realization. But regulations must be put in place to govern their widespread acceptance and eventual adoption. Technology often advances quicker than the framework which allows for implementation—and it seemed as though the industry stood before a regulatory obstacle.

Scoping the potential

But in June 2019, scoping guidelines for the feasibility of MASS—within the framework of existing IMO instruments—were approved by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC). To differentiate the different levels of automation, MSC has specified four degrees:

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.

Finland leading the way

The world’s first ‘degree four’ ship navigated between Pargas and Nagu in Finland last year. The car ferry, Falco, utilized sensor fusion and artificial intelligence to successfully charter 80 invited guests.

What’s more, the Finnish research group, One Sea, gathers leading maritime experts with an aim to create a suitable environment for autonomous ships by 2025.

Set sail for an autonomous future

The IMO exercise will look to address some of the challenges and risks that autonomous vessels present. By aligning the IMO instruments with the technology, cybersecurity risks, emergency situations and responsibilities, and environmental issues can be addressed.

If properly implemented, they would reduce the need for human supervision while maintaining a high level of safety, reduce crewing costs, and onboard space could be better utilized. What’s more, a research project for autonomous vessels revealed that despite initial expenditure, fully autonomous bulk carriers could create savings of up to USD 7 million over a 25-year period.

Are we there yet? Not quite—but with the IMO determining the most appropriate way to usher in autonomous vessels, we are certainly one step closer.

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