Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) – the work continues

News / / London

As part of its Maritime 2050 Strategy, the UK committed to maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS) and, in November 2021, it held a consultation on the future of autonomous vessels. The Strategy document recognised that technology in the maritime industry generally, and increased automation specifically, can increase vessel and seafarer efficiency, optimise performance and improve safety by reducing human error, which accounts for the vast majority of marine accidents.

The UK’s stance reflects the increasing international recognition that the maritime industry is developing and relying on various levels of automation both onshore and on board. This is clearly the way forward. A key example is the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO’s) Strategic Plan for 2018 to 2023, which included the aim of integrating developing technologies within the maritime regulatory framework. Among other things, the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) considered that the IMO should take a proactive and leading role in the introduction of commercially operated ships in autonomous mode (i.e. operating without crew) and undertook a scoping exercise to determine how to introduce the safe, secure and environmentally sound operation of marine autonomous surface ships (MASS) into IMO legal instruments. The scoping exercise considered a range of issues, including the human element, safety, security, liability and compensation for damage and protection of the marine environment.

The scoping exercise was finalized in May 2021 and, in April 2022, work started on developing a suitable instrument to regulate the operation of MASS. A Joint IMO Working Group on MASS - comprising the MSC, LEG (Legal Committee) and FAL (Facilitation Committee) – was established to address high-priority issues and a road map was approved that envisages two stages.

The first stage is developing a non-mandatory Code for cargo ships that should be adopted in the second half of 2024. Whether the non-mandatory Code is appropriate for passenger ships will be considered in due course. The experience gained from applying the non-mandatory MASS Code will be reflected in a report that is expected to be issued in or around spring 2023.

The second stage is developing a mandatory MASS Code that is expected to enter into force on 1 January 2028. This mandatory Code will factor in the conclusions and findings of the report on the non-mandatory Code.

As part of this process, in September 2022, an IMO MASS Seminar took place and was attended by various stakeholders. The Joint Working Group has also developed a table to identify preferred options for addressing common issues such as:

  • Defining the term “master”, its role and responsibilities;
  • Determining the role and competencies of the crew of a MASS;
  • Defining “remote control station/center” and its requirements;
  • Defining the term “remote operator”, its responsibilities, required competencies and status as a seafarer.

Another potential consideration is whether the current definitions of degrees of autonomy, as identified by the IMO, need to be changed. They are at present as follows:

  • crewed ship with automated processes and decision support (Degree One);
  • remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board (Degree Two);
  • remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board (Degree Three); and
  • fully autonomous ship (Degree Four).

The advantages of autonomous shipping are clear. Reducing the scope for human error that leads to accidents and casualties is a key factor. Nonetheless, as with developing technologies and increasing automation in all industry sectors, reliance on artificial intelligence brings its own risks. Cyber risk is a major concern. As is the possibility of technical and power failures. It is also vital that crew dealing with the relevant technology, whether onboard or on shore, are sufficiently trained. That brings with it the challenge of suitable and adequate training for traditionally minded and trained seafarers. There is a risk of potential redundancy for those who cannot transition successfully to an automated environment.

Additionally, there are legal considerations. In December 2021, LEG indicated that current IMO conventions could accommodate MASS with some amendments. Since then, the IMO had decided to produce the MASS non-mandatory and mandatory Codes. However, non-IMO conventions (e.g. UNCLOS, Maritime Labour Convention 2006) will have to be addressed separately. Flag states will also need to reconsider their domestic liability regimes for commercial ships. It is also possible that some countries will not accept MASS within their territorial waters and that developing states will be left behind in the race to automation, so that there will be a gap between developed and developing countries in this respect.

Be that as it may, while regulatory considerations are underway, further practical advances are being made. There have been a number of successful real-life MASS trials in the past few years. For example, in January 2022, the Soleil, a RoPax ferry, became the first vessel of over 200 metres in length to attempt a fully autonomous voyage, travelling between two Japanese ports in around seven hours. Soleil was built as a smart ferry and was created by Mitsubishi Shipbuilding. Its voyage was part of the trials being conducted by the Nippon Foundation ship navigation project.

In May 2022, the LNG vessel Prism Courage completed the first transoceanic voyage of a merchant ship using autonomous navigation technology. It was reported to be the first large vessel to sail over 10,000 km autonomously. The vessel belongs to Avikus, a company founded by Hyundai Heavy Industries and specialising in ship technology solutions.

On 30 June 2022, the Mayflower completed an unmanned crossing of the Atlantic Ocean (the delay in this voyage being due to the pandemic).

In addition, the Maju 510 tug owned by Keppel Smit Salvage achieved important milestones for the industry in 2022. She was the first vessel to receive the Autonomous and Remote-Control Navigation Notation from ABS and first to receive the Smart Autonomous Notation from the Singapore Maritime and Port Authority.

The tug, overseen by a tug master onboard, demonstrated her ability autonomously to avoid collisions in various scenarios. She was put to the test in situations where two other vessels were on a collision course and where a nearby vessel was behaving erratically. The Maju 510 manoeuvred smoothly to avoid collisions as if she was being operated by an experienced tug master, thereby demonstrating the viability of automated systems in aiding collision avoidance.

The industry press continues to report on these and similar projects, with a number of other trials anticipated to take place in the next couple of years. In the meantime, the international maritime sector is looking to the IMO for further legal and regulatory guidance on MASS. Finally, BIMCO has responded to these developments by undertaking to produce a standard form contract, AUTOSHIPMAN, based on the SHIPMAN 2009, for autonomous vessels.

Reema Shour

Reema Shour Professional Support Lawyer

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