The maritime industry is undergoing significant technological advancements, paving the way for the commercial utilization of autonomous ships, whether operated remotely or fully autonomously. However, this transformation necessitates robust regulatory measures to ensure the safety of crew, cargo, and vessels at sea. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is actively working to incorporate these new and emerging technologies into its regulatory framework, striking a balance between the advantages of innovation and concerns related to safety, security, environmental impact, trade facilitation, industry costs, and workforce implications.

The IMO's objective is to ensure that its regulatory framework for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) keeps pace with the rapidly evolving technological landscape. In 2021, the IMO conducted a regulatory scoping exercise focused on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships. This exercise aimed to evaluate how existing IMO regulations could be applied to ships employing varying degrees of automation.

The outcomes of the regulatory scoping exercise were finalized during different sessions of relevant IMO committees. The 103rd Session of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in May 2021 concluded the scoping exercise for safety treaties, while the Legal Committee finalized its portion during its 108th session in July 2021. Similarly, the Facilitation Committee (FAL) approved the outcomes of treaties within its jurisdiction during FAL 46 in May 2022. The IMO's commitment to adapting its regulatory framework underscores its dedication to addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by the growing autonomy in the maritime sector.

Developing a MASS Code:

After finalizing the scoping exercise and building upon the work initiated during the 105th session of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), the committee's 106th session in November 2022 achieved additional advancements in crafting a goal-based framework for regulating the operation of autonomous surface ships in the maritime sector. The primary objective is to establish a non-compulsory goal-based code for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) by 2025, which will serve as the foundation for a mandatory goal-based MASS Code projected to become effective on January 1, 2028.

Joint MSC/LEG/FAL Working Group:

To address shared concerns identified through the regulatory scoping exercises conducted by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), the Legal Committee (LEG), and the Facilitation Committee (FAL) regarding the utilization of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS), a collaborative effort has been established. This collaborative mechanism, known as the Joint MSC/LEG/FAL Working Group on MASS (MASS-JWG), serves as a cross-disciplinary platform to tackle common issues.

The outcomes of the MASS-JWG sessions can be found on the right-hand side of this page. During MSC's 106th session, updates regarding the first meeting of the Joint MSC/LEG/FAL Working Group, which took place in September 2022, were shared. The committee also endorsed the group's work plan and supported the organization of two meetings in both 2022 and 2023. This joint working group represents a proactive initiative to comprehensively address the multifaceted aspects of introducing and regulating autonomous surface ships in the maritime industry.

Interim guidelines for trials of autonomous ships:

In response to mutual concerns identified through regulatory scoping exercises conducted by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), the Legal Committee (LEG), and the Facilitation Committee (FAL) concerning the application of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS), a collaborative initiative has been established. This collaborative mechanism, termed the Joint MSC/LEG/FAL Working Group on MASS (MASS-JWG), functions as an interdisciplinary platform aimed at addressing shared challenges.

During the 101st session of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) held in June 2019, interim guidelines for trials involving Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) were approved (MSC.1-Circ.1604). These guidelines outline that trials should be conducted in a manner that ensures a level of safety, security, and environmental protection that is at least equivalent to what is provided by the applicable regulations. The guidelines emphasize the importance of identifying associated risks and implementing measures to minimize these risks to the lowest reasonably achievable and acceptable levels. Individuals involved in MASS trials, whether as remote operators or onboard personnel, should possess the appropriate qualifications and experience to safely carry out these trials. Adequate measures should also be taken to ensure effective cyber risk management of the systems and infrastructure used during MASS trials.

What did the regulatory scoping exercise look at?

The regulatory scoping exercise was viewed as an initial step that covered a wide array of topics, encompassing aspects such as the human element, safety, security, liability, compensation for damages, interactions with ports, pilotage, incident responses, and environmental protection. This endeavor involved evaluating a substantial number of IMO treaty provisions and identifying their applicability to Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) operations, as well as the potential need for amendments, clarifications, or new measures.

During the scoping exercise, various degrees of autonomy were identified for classification purposes:

1. Degree One: Ships with automated processes and decision support, where seafarers are present to operate shipboard systems, and some operations may be automated but supervised.
2. Degree Two: Remotely controlled ships with seafarers on board, operated from another location, with onboard seafarers available to take control.
3. Degree Three: Remotely controlled ships without onboard seafarers, operated from another location.
4. Degree Three: Remotely controlled ships without onboard seafarers, operated from another location.

The exercise yielded several pressing issues that would necessitate policy-level attention for future actions. This included the establishment of universally accepted MASS terminology and definitions, especially for the terms "master," "crew," or "responsible person," notably in Degrees Three (remotely controlled ship) and Four (fully autonomous ship).

Additionally, key matters emerged, such as determining the functional and operational requirements of remote-control stations/centers and the potential classification of remote operators as seafarers. Identifying common gaps and themes across various safety treaties highlighted issues related to manual operations and alarms on the bridge, personnel actions (like firefighting, cargo handling, and maintenance), watchkeeping, implications for search and rescue, and essential onboard information for safe operation.

Are there currently operational autonomous ships?

Trial operations of autonomous and remotely controlled ships are underway in specific sea regions.

It is widely anticipated that the application of autonomous or semi-autonomous technology will initially be limited to short journeys, such as between specific ports over short distances.

In May 2023, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) organized a Symposium titled "Making Headway on the IMO MASS Code." This event explored recent advancements in autonomous shipping to contribute to the development of the MASS Code and establish a global cooperation network. Further details about the symposium can be found in its summary.

In 2021, IMO conducted a Seminar on the Development of a Regulatory Framework for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). This gathering brought together experts from research, academia, business, and government to discuss the challenges and innovative approaches required for the creation of a MASS Code.

Which treaties were examined during the regulatory scoping exercise?

Maritime Safety Committee (MSC):

The scoping exercise conducted by the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) covered several instruments, including those related to:

1. Safety and maritime security (SOLAS)
2. Collision regulations (COLREG)
3. Loading and stability (Load Lines)
4. Training of seafarers and fishers (STCW, STCW-F)
5. Search and rescue (SAR)
6. Tonnage measurement (Tonnage Convention)
7. Safe Containers (CSC)
8. Special trade passenger ship instruments (SPACE STP, STP)
9. Facilitation Committee:

The Facilitation Committee's focus was on the Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL Convention). The scoping exercise found that the FAL Convention could generally accommodate Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) operations within its existing framework. Sections of the FAL Convention required review or interpretation to accommodate MASS operations, while other sections remained applicable as is.

The Legal Committee's regulatory scoping exercise concluded that MASS could be incorporated within the current regulatory framework of Legal Committee (LEG) conventions without significant adjustments or a new instrument. Some conventions could accommodate MASS as written, while others might require additional interpretations or amendments to address identified gaps and themes.

Key issues that emerged from the exercise included the roles and responsibilities of the master and remote operator, questions of liability, consistent definitions/terminology for MASS, and the carriage of certificates. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was not part of the LEG exercise since it falls outside of IMO's scope; however, it's essential to consider UNCLOS as MASS must operate within its legal framework.


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