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Marine Electronics & Communications

Marine Electronics & Communications

Autonomous ships need changes to IMO rules and insurance

Tue 19 Sep 2017 by Martyn Wingrove

Autonomous ships need changes to IMO rules and insurance
Autonomous ships could be operating within a decade with insurance cover (credit: Rolls-Royce)

Changes will be required to ship regulations and insurance terms if autonomous vessels are developed and introduced 

Discussions at Lloyd’s of London, during a public forum at London International Shipping Week in September, examined what were the insurance implications of a maritime accident involving an unmanned ship. Chubb Global Markets head of marine Mark Edmondson explained that the technology needed to construct and operate remotely controlled and semi-autonomous ships is available. However, he said there would need to be major changes to regulations and insurance cover.

By 2020, there are likely to be semi-unmanned ships operating on localised routes. For example, Norwegian groups Yara and Kongsberg are working on a semi-autonomous bulk carrier for a shortsea project in Norway. Yara Birkeland could be in service by the end of 2019.

Mr Edmondson said affordable insurance cover would need to be developed by modifying existing cover for maritime liability. He expects hull and machinery cover to be straightforward but he said providing “liability cover may be challenging, depending on the size” of the requirement.

In a presentation, he reviewed the positive and negative changes to insured risk that are likely to arise from unmanned shipping. Mr Edmondson suggested that there could be reduced risk of maritime accidents, since more than 50% – perhaps up to 80% – of all accidents are caused by human error. That risk would be reduced because early adoption of the technology would be on vessels serving localised and scheduled routes. Risk could also be lowered by installing less moving machinery on unnamed ships.

Law and order

However, risks could be increased by the lack of any person on board these ships to swiftly intervene to prevent an accident and because unproven technology will need to be used on the early remote control and autonomous vessel projects.

Risks of a collision were presented by lawyers from Holman Fenwick Willan (HFW) at a separate forum at London International Shipping Week. HFW partner Tom Walters said that it would “take time for trust to build before autonomous ships were introduced”. However, it would also take time before IMO regulations, such as in Solas, the collision regulations (Colregs) and STCW (Standards for Training, Certification and Watchkeeping), can be revised.

For example, there are a number of rules in the Colregs that determine that seafarers are in control of ships, that they are lookouts and someone is able to act to prevent accidents. Mr Walters questioned whether the rules can be changed to include shore operators or computers linked to sensors. There is also a question of whether autonomous surface vessels can be described as ships in maritime law and insurance.

“There would be no one to interview and unlikely to be any documents on the ships as these would be at the shore base”

HFW senior associate Matthew Montgomery described a hypothetical casualty involving an unmanned ship being compromised by a cyber attack and then grounding, causing flammable cargo to catch fire and cause damage to the ship structure and other cargo. He said there would be questions as to who was responsible for the accident: the vessel owner, control room operator or IT department for not updating software.

Mr Montgomery said there would have to be changes in the way an accident was investigated as “there would be no one to interview and unlikely to be any documents on the ships as these would be at the shore base”. He concluded that a casualty involving an unmanned ship would result in lengthy legal and insurance discussions over who was responsible, but ultimately it would likely be the owner, who has a duty to ensure the vessel was seaworthy, including ensuring software was patched and updated.

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