International deliberations on autonomous vessels

By Helle Hammer, Managing Director of Cefor and Chair of the IUMI Policy Forum

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) started deliberations on a regulatory scoping exercise for the use of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) in May. Just prior to a meeting of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), an international workshop was organised by Japan at the IMO headquarters to progress the work and facilitate the deliberations.

Following introductions by IMO Secretary-General Ki-tack Lim and Maritime Safety Director Heike Deggim, various projects were presented to a large audience of flag states and organisations in the main conference hall. Among the workshop suggestions were the need to clarify what is meant by an ‘autonomous ship’, and whether a separate code and interim guidelines should be developed.

The IMO has recognised that given the rapid technological developments it should take a proactive and leading role on MASS. Consequently, both MSC and the Legal Committee (LEG) have now agreed on scoping exercises to see if, where and how autonomous vessels will fit in existing regulatory frameworks. Target completion year for the MSC exercise is 2020, while LEG will complete its consideration and gap analysis of conventions in 2022. A taskforce is set up to assist with the scoping exercises.

In the session this May, MSC focused on the framework of the regulatory exercise and agreed on a plan of work with terms of reference to an intersessional correspondence group. Although the purpose of the exercise will not be to develop new regulations, it is expected to touch on an extensive range of issues, including the human element, safety, security, interactions with ports, pilotage, responses to incidents and protection of the marine environment.