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Maritime Digitalisation & Communications

IMO prepares for autonomous ship regulation amendments

Tue 08 Jan 2019 by Martyn Wingrove

IMO prepares for autonomous ship regulation amendments
Autonomous container ships will need to comply with amended IMO regulations (Source: Rolls-Royce)

With the shipping industry showing increasing interest in developing autonomous ships, IMO will review regulations pertaining to Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) in 2019

This will build on progress made by IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) during meetings in May and December 2018.

During MSC’s landmark 100th session in December 2018, the committee completed an initial regulatory scoping exercise on unmanned ships. During this process, MSC assessed IMO instruments to consider how they would apply to ships with varying degrees of autonomy.

A correspondence group conducted tests on the methodology for this assessment. MSC then approved the framework and methodology for the regulatory scoping exercise on MASS.

This committee considered how these IMO instruments would apply to, or prevent the operation of, autonomous ships. It also considered the degrees of autonomy MASS operations could have in the future.

The degrees of autonomy identified for the purpose of the scoping exercise are:

  • 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.
  • Degree four: Fully autonomous ship. The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

During 2019, IMO will analyse the most appropriate way that regulations can address development of MASS operations. This will account for the technology, human element and operational factors.

This analysis should identify the need for equivalences as provided for by IMO instruments or developing interpretations from these. IMO will consider which amendments are needed to existing instruments and what new instruments will be needed.

IMO member states will support stakeholders and other interested international organisations in this analysis and report back to IMO before the end of Q3. IMO plans to hold an intersessional MSC working group in September 2019 to discuss these outcomes and how to progress with the next stage of completing the regulatory scoping exercise in 2020.

IMO instruments to be included in the scoping exercise include SOLAS, Standards for Training, Crewing and Watchkeeping, collision regulations and those covering ship loading and stability. Regulations covering search and rescue, tonnage measurement, container safety and special trade passenger ships will also be incorporated in MSC’s MASS scoping exercise.

The committee has also started a working group to develop guidelines for testing and trials of autonomous ships. These guidelines should be generic and goal-based and guide organisations considering MASS trials to take a precautionary approach to ensure safe, secure and environmentally sound operations.

MSC will discuss trial and guidance proposals at its next session (MSC 101), from 5-14 June 2019.

Polar Code amendments

During December’s MSC 100 meeting, the committee considered expanding the requirements of IMO’s Polar Code to consider different vessels and improvements in navigation safety. Further discussions are scheduled for the next MSC session, in June, to cover communications, voyage planning and navigation safety on ships not covered by SOLAS.

Currently, the Polar Code is mandatory for certain categories of ships under the SOLAS and Marpol conventions. SOLAS chapter V (covering the safety of navigation) in principle applies to all ships on all voyages, although there are specific exceptions. The applicability of SOLAS chapter IV (radiocommunications) extends to cargo ships of 300 gt and upwards, as opposed to the general SOLAS application to ships of 500 gt and above.

SOLAS, and thus the Polar Code, does not apply to specific categories of ships, including cargo ships of less than 500 gt, pleasure yachts not engaged in trade, naval ships and fishing vessels. However, these increasingly conduct voyages in polar regions and IMO considers that changes are needed to the Polar Code to recognise this.

During MSC 101, preliminary draft text that would extend the application of the Polar Code to all ships to which SOLAS chapter V applies will be considered. The committee will also discuss including additional SOLAS chapters covering voyage planning and navigational safety into the Polar Code to include non-SOLAS ships. In the meantime, MSC will develop interim measures this year.

Arctic satellite communications

Satellite communications in the Arctic have limited capacity but are being improved as new capacity is launched. A major improvement in L-band provision came from the continuous launch of Iridium Next satellites in 2018. These have low Earth orbits that transition across both north and south poles.

Iridium Next doubles the bandwidth from this 66-satellite constellation for ships with Certus terminals installed.

There were improvements in Ku-band coverage with Inmarsat’s latest fifth generation satellite and Telenor’s Thor 7 satellite providing regional coverage in northern seas. There have also been additions to Ku-band coverage through new satellite commissions.

Using this connectivity, Orange Business Services improved satellite communications for Arctic Shipping Co, which operates six ships along the northern sea routes across northern Siberia.

Orange’s Maritime Connect was deployed on these ships to ensure crew remained in contact with shore managers and family throughout voyages between the Barents Sea and the Bering Strait.

Arctic Shipping chief executive Mikhail Artyukhov explained that connectivity was important for the reliability and quality of its services, enabling the shipowner to consider its six vessels as offices-at-sea during voyages along the northern sea routes.

Maritime Connect combines multiple networks, including satellites and mobile phone 3G networks, to enable seafarers to work in a single virtual corporate network.

Arctic Shipping’s crews use Maritime Connect to view information for navigation, accessing updated ice condition information and updating electronic mapping systems while sailing through harsh environments.


Key IMO 2019 meetings

21-25 January

Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue (NCSR 6)

4-8 February

Ship Design and Construction (SDC 6)

18-22 February

Pollution Prevention and Response (PPR 6)

4-8 March

Ship Systems and Equipment (SSE 6)

29 April-3 May

Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping (HTW 6)

13-17 May

Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC 74)

5-14 June

Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 101)

15-19 July

IMO Council (122)

9-13 September

Carriage of Cargoes and Containers (CCC 6)

25 November-5 December

IMO Assembly (31)


Maersk set to test situational awareness technology in 2019

AP Moller-Maersk has agreed to trial Sea Machines Robotics’ advanced perception and navigation assistance technology on newbuild ice-class container ships, starting March 2019.

AP Moller-Maersk senior manager Michael Rodey said his group was investing in Sea Machines to test the future of advanced navigation systems.

“I think this investment sends a strong signal on the types of technologies that will come to define the maritime industry in the future,” he said.

Sea Machines is developing a range of situational awareness and advanced navigation assistance packages for vesselss including container ships. It has already tested these technologies on workboats and is ready for commercial ship testing.

In October 2018, Sea Machines released an introductory line of autonomous command and remote control systems for shipping, offshore and scientific vessels. The group expects its investment in autonomous technology to pay for itself within a year.

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