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Overcoming the Regulatory Challenges for MASS

James Fanshawe, Chair of the UK’s Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group discusses the regulatory implications of autonomous surface ships.

5 February 2019

Coastal Infrastructure Water Management

Overcoming the Regulatory Challenges for MASS

The UK has been at the vanguard of progress for Autonomous vessels, no more than addressing regulatory issues. Whilst there are challenges to be overcome, there should be no barriers to progress.

The UK Maritime Autonomous Systems Working Group has been meeting for the last six years and has produced Industry Codes of Conduct and Practice for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS).

The UK produced the key submission to the International Maritime Organization, which triggered the Scoping Exercise now underway at IMO, supporting Correspondence Group.

The objective is to assess the degree to which the existing regulatory framework, under the purview of the MSC, may be affected to address Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) operations. The target completion year for the Scoping Exercise is 2020.

There is considerable work to be done; the IMO Scoping Exercise and other related work start a process. There is much debate about MASS around the world, notably on the complex subject of definitions. In reality, the development and operation of MASS are moving at a faster pace than the regulatory process; the advent of Yara Birkeland at sea in 2020 is a good example. This may present a degree of concern, not least if nations develop their own independent practices. We should not assume that MASS will only operate within the jurisdiction of individual nations. Not only can they be found on the High Seas today, but they will increasingly transit between nations; short-sea operations will be the expected norm during the early years of the IMO work.

The key challenge is to dovetail the reality of MASS with regulatory outcomes, whilst not impeding progress. We must be patient whilst IMO do their work. Strong communication, flexibility, and acceptance of the full implications of equivalence will reap great benefits for the safety and efficiency of the maritime community.

The IMO preliminary definition of MASS is defined as a ship that, to a varying degree, can operate independently of human interaction. IMO have set four initial degrees of autonomy for their work:

  1. Ship with automated processes and decision support - Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions.

  2. Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board - The ship is controlled and operated from another location, but seafarers are on board.

  3. Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board - The ship is controlled and operated from another location. There are no seafarers on board.

  4. Fully autonomous ship – The operating system of the ship can make decisions and determine actions by itself.

It will be interesting to see how these definitions are adapted and those of the Classification Societies.


About author:

James Fanshawe retired from the Royal Navy in 2005. An Anti-Submarine warfare specialist, he commanded HMS HURWORTH, CLEOPATRA, AND FEARLESS and was the Commander United Kingdom Task Group and Commander of the Devonport Flotilla. He held several senior appointments ashore, including Director of Plans at the UK Permanent Joint Headquarters.

James works within a mixed commercial portfolio, chairing several companies and organizations. He chairs the UK’s Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group on behalf of the Marine Industries Alliance. This group released a Code of Conduct for the safe operation of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) and has now published a Code of Practice for MASS, having prepared the proposal submitted by the UK to the International Maritime Organisation in February 2017 for a regulatory scoping exercise for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships. He is a member of the UK Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS) Steering Group and the MAS Council.


This article was originally published in  Focus Issue 1,2019

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