UK seeks to steer autonomous vessel evolution

The design for autonomous vessel Yara Birkeland. Credit: Kongsberg
The design for autonomous vessel Yara Birkeland. Credit: Kongsberg

Maritime UK has launched a second version of anindustry code of practice for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) as part of ongoing efforts by the United Kingdom to play a leadership role in this field.

The new code of practice, which has been prepared by the UK Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group (MASRWG), supersedes the first version published in November 2017. It aims to set standards and best practice and provide practical guidance for those who design, build, manufacture, test, own, operate, and control autonomous and semi-autonomous vessels.

The code is applicable only to vessels under 24 m in length but it also sets out to “establish some principles and guidance … for those operating larger vessels”.

Whereas last year’s version of the document focused on the design and manufacture of vessels, the new code adds guidelines on operations, skills, training, and vessel registration, a clear sign of the pace of change and the fact that more autonomous vessels are entering operation all the time.

Speaking at a briefing in advance of the launch of the new code of practice, James Fanshawe, chair of MASRWG, cited container feeder Yara Birkeland as an example of the rapid rate of progress. This vessel is due to be launched by Norwegian fertiliser company Yara in 2019 and, after trials, expected to start operating autonomously in 2020 or 2021, transporting fertiliser and other products from Yara’s plants and taking the place of more than 100 diesel truck journeys per day. Yara claims it will be the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship with zero emissions.

“The whole industry is moving at a very fast speed and it’s really important that there are guidelines available to underpin that development,” Fanshawe said, emphasising the importance of “keeping pace with global developments”.

While not a legal text, the first version of the code of practice is already being used by manufacturers, service providers, and other companies to guide their day-to-day work.

According to Dan Hook, senior director at L3 ASV and one of the co-founders of MASRWG, “Manufacturers of MASS have reported clients requiring compliance with the code of practice as a basis for approval of contractual negotiations.”

Speaking separately to IHS Markit, Tom White, Innovation Owner Marine & Offshore at Lloyd’s Register Global Technology Centre, also welcomed the new MASS Code of Practice. He sees it as an excellent example of the collaboration between technology providers and other maritime stakeholders, something he believes will be key to realising the potentially revolutionary introduction of autonomous systems. He agrees that it “further establishes the United Kingdom’s position as a centre for excellence in maritime autonomy”.

More broadly, White expects that “autonomous systems will provide opportunities for skilled seafarers to focus on what they do best and gain new and useful skills for the industry”, something that the code should help facilitate.

The code of practice has been developed in parallel with, but independently from, work being conducted at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which aims to bring the operation of MASS within the existing IMO regulatory framework. A scoping exercise was initiated at the 98th meeting of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in June 2017 with the aim of identifying which provisions (in an agreed list of IMO instruments) may or may not be applicable to ships of varying degrees of autonomy. The list of instruments covered includes those covering safety (SOLAS); collision regulations (COLREG); loading and stability (Load Lines); training of seafarers and fishers; search and rescue (SAR); tonnage measurement (Tonnage Convention); and special trade passenger ship instruments.

It is anticipated that the IMO scoping exercise will be further developed and finalised at MSC 100, scheduled to take place at IMO headquarters in London from 3–7 December. MSC 100 is also expected to consider proposals related to the development of interim guidelines for trials of autonomous vessels.