MSC takes up IMO autonomy discussion

IMO's London headquarters will host discussion on regulating for autonomous vessels as part of this week's Maritime Safety Committee meeting IMO's London headquarters will host discussion on regulating for autonomous vessels as part of this week's Maritime Safety Committee meeting

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) will discuss how it can begin to regulate for autonomous vessels at the ninety-ninth meeting of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), starting this week.

The meeting, to be held at IMO’s London headquarters on 16-29 May, will discuss more than 50 submissions on vessel autonomy as the organisation begins its scoping exercise. Work is expected to focus on the framework of the regulatory exercise and a plan of work including expected deliverables.

At its previous session in June 2017, MSC recognised that IMO should take a proactive role on vessel autonomy. A proposal from Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, UK and the US to discuss vessel autonomy at its next meeting, with the aim of drawing up a plan of how it will consider the matter further.

The scoping exercise is expected to cover crew issues, safety, security, interactions with ports, pilotage, incident response and environmental protection. According to IMO, a working group is likely to be established to develop a plan of work and terms of reference for a group to carry on the task between MSC meetings. The work is expected to take place over four MSC sessions through to mid-2020.

One prominent voice at the meeting will be Rolls-Royce Marine, which has been invited to present its view on the future of regulation for autonomous and remotely operated vessels. As part of the Finnish marine autonomous ecosystem Open Sea project coordinated by DIMEC, Rolls-Royce will also contribute to two submissions. One is an information document on Finland’s autonomous test bed – the first in the world and the only one open to any organisation that wishes to explore autonomy (subject to a small fee that covers DIMEC’s administration costs and compensation for local fishing vessels).

The second paper considers levels of autonomy. Several organisations have presented their own versions of autonomy levels – ranging from simply assisted decision making to complete autonomy with no human intervention. The paper suggests that IMO does not need to introduce its own scheme in order to discuss autonomy given broad agreement across the industry.

Maritime trade union Nautilus International, which represents around 22,000 people employed in the industry, will also be submitting a study on the role of ‘human factors’ in the drive towards autonomous shipping. According to a survey of almost 1,000 maritime professionals, neglecting the human element could pose threats to safety and the environment.

The study revealed that 84% of respondents consider automation a threat to seafaring jobs, while 85% believe unmanned remotely controlled ships pose a threat to safety. However, more than 60% said they felt automation has the potential to make shipping safer if it is used to enhance onboard operations, cut fatigue, minimise paperwork and reduce dangerous or repetitive tasks.

Nautilus is backing two papers submitted to the meeting by the International Transport Workers’ Federation and the International Federation of Shipmasters’ Associations. The papers warn of the potential for confusion over the definition of an autonomous ship and stress the need for more attention to be paid to human/machine interface issues, as well as the interaction between autonomous ships and conventional vessels.

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