Autonomous Vessels: Regulating the Future

This article was first published in the June edition of Marine & Maritime Gazette. To view the original article please click here and visit page 16. 

With Seawork around the corner, a theme once again this year on the lips of many exhibitors and visitors is Autonomous Vessels. We take a look at the issues, including the benefits and pitfalls, of regulating this growing new technology.

It has been said that the prevalence of Autonomous Vessels (AVs) in shipping, set to grow exponentially in the next 10 years, will be the biggest revolution in the industry since steam overtook sail-power. AVs are set to be introduced in parallel with innovations in other areas of transport, such as driverless cars (pioneered by Google) and drone delivery technology (being developed by Amazon).

First, we must make sure we understand what we mean when we talk about AVs. Many in the industry distinguish AVs from Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) such as those used in oceanographic research and military and security use. AVs have developed from these areas and may be different from those used in shipping - however for our purpose and for ease of reference we will not distinguish them here. Underwater Autonomous Vessels (UAVs) have, of course, been in use in the industry for many years. But the rapid development is really set to be for Autonomous Surface Vessels.

The root of this new technological development are innovations in science. For example, the University of Plymouth is currently working on the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS), a 33 metre trimaran. The project is to build the MAS to be the world's first full-sized, autonomous, unmanned vessel to cross the Atlantic ocean in 2020, for the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. So, innovations abound in this area and it will not be long before technology comes head to head with regulation.

As always with any developing technology, commerce is the driving factor. The notion of cutting overheads by having unmanned bulk carriers or port security vessels has long been a dream in the industry, having been spoken about over decades. Yet with any branching out into unknown territory, there is bound to be commensurate involvement with regulatory bodies and their processes of approval before we can even begin to discuss how the industry will adopt them.

The first and most obvious regulation that AVs will come into contact with will be the COLREGS, particularly as they relate to collisions between manned and unmanned vessels. This has not been a big issue to date, not only because of the lack of AVs in our waters, but also due to their design. Most AVs are still under 12 metres, small and light with inflators or foam collars and sensors to stop them colliding with objects such as manned vessels. Fine, as far as it goes, as the risk of collision is that much smaller (it is interesting to note that, at least initially, the COLREGS did not apply to UAVs either). But how does that square with the dream of, say, unmanned bulk carriers? That can hardly be said to be in the same field! Amendment, perhaps on a drastic basis, of the COLREGS by the IMO would therefore be necessary, although with ratification being needed across the board this could be a long and drawn out process - and businesses are unlikely to be patient in the meantime if the technology is there.

In fact, it is anticipated that all of the major IMO conventions would need amendments to various degrees. This would include the Facilitation of Maritime Traffic (FAL) and the Athens Convention (PAL), not to mention further consideration of SOLAS. But it is not all doom and gloom - it is even being said that AVs may even assist in deregulation. Many pollution regulations (such as MARPOL) may be required less as AVs are not expected to be as polluting as manned vessels. Some are even saying that AVs may eventually make ship nationalities a thing of the past.

Whatever the future holds, it is clear that AVs are only going to continue to be a hot topic in the industry, in Seawork and beyond. It is hoped that regulation could develop alongside this new technology so as not to hinder the industry unnecessarily.

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