The idea of developing smart ships that have ability to navigate without human input has been around for some time and as a result of technological developments in recent years, it is believed that this could be a reality in near future.
The Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) at its most recent meeting (MSC 99) in May 2018 agreed to establish a Working Group (WC) (named as Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) WC) to undertake a scoping exercise with a view to identifying which of the existing international instruments dealing with maritime safety should be amended and what new instruments should be developed to facilitate the operation of such vessels in international waters.
For the purposes of this exercise, a number of provisional definitions have been prescribed. Most significantly, MASS is defined as “a ship which, to varying degree, can operate independent of human interaction”. This is a very broad definition and encompasses all of the ships that are currently under consideration. The WG has prescribed four degrees of autonomy: (MSC 99/WP.9 Annex 1, para 4)
- Ship with automated processes and decision support. Such ships have on board seafarers to operate and control shipboard systems and functions.
- Remotely controlled ships with seafarers on board. The ship is controlled and operated from a distant location.
- Remotely controlled ships without seafarers on board. The ship is controlled and operated from a distant location.
- Fully autonomous ships. Here, the operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.
The categorisation seems to be rather basic but perhaps simplicity is necessary at this early stage. We suppose in case of (ii), it is envisaged that seafarers on board will have technical knowledge and knowhow to intervene and take control in case of an emergency. It is also worth noting that ever increasing cyber risks should be taken into account and especially in case of (iii), it is curious to know what steps can be taken to ensure that the safety is not compromised in a case where contact between the ship and offshore operator is lost. This could be also a significant issue with regard to vessels which have full autonomy (e.g. iv).
It is worth reminding ourselves that the scope of this exercise is restricted to instruments concerning maritime safety (i.e. COLREG 1972, SOLAS 1974, STCW 1974, SAR 1979 and International Convention on Loadlines 1966). Once smart ships become operational other problems, i.e. the liability of manufacturers/software producers, impact of cyber risks on traditional division of liability, salvage law, are also likely to arise. These issues do not form at this stage part of the IMO’s work on the subject.
It is expected that the work of the MASS WC will be completed by the end of 2020. Even then, this is only beginning of a long journey. It will possibly take another decade or so to formulate new legal rules and amend existing ones to enable autonomous ships to engage in cross-border commercial operations. However, as Lao Tzu once famously said:
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”.
Please note that smart ships will form part of the discussion in our 14th Annual Colloquium to be held on 10-11 September 2018: