Ships' “black boxes” and automatic identification systems – regulations enter into force on 1 July 2002

New regulations for certain size ships to carry voyage data recorders (VDRs) and automatic identification systems (AISs) enter into force today (1 July 2002).

The mandatory regulations are among a raft of amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974 (SOLAS) entering into force on 1 July 2002.  In addition, under its second phase of implementation, the International Management Code for the Safe Operation of Ships and for Pollution Prevention (ISM Code) becomes mandatory for most ships trading internationally on 1 July 2002.   (See also Briefings 21/2002 and 23/2002)

The revised SOLAS chapter V (Safety of Navigation), which was adopted in December 2000, includes a number of important new requirements for ships, including those relating to carriage of VDRs and AIS and acceptance of electronic charts as meeting the chart carriage requirements.   

Voyage data recorders

Like the black boxes carried on aircraft, VDRs enable accident investigators to review procedures and instructions in the moments before an incident and help to identify the cause of any accident. Performance standards for VDRs were adopted by IMO in 1997 (IMO resolution A.861(20)) and IMO encourages all ships to carry VDRs.

In addition, IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in May 2002 approved MSC/Circ.1024 on Guidelines on Voyage Data Recorders (VDR) ownership to complement the VDR performance standards.

VDR requirements

The following ships are required to carry VDRs, under regulation 20 of the new SOLAS Chapter V:

  • passenger ships constructed on or after 1 July 2002;
  • ro-ro passenger ships constructed before 1 July 2002 not later than the first survey on or after 1 July 2002;
  • passenger ships other than ro-ro passenger ships constructed before 1 July 2002 not later than 1 January 2004; and
  • ships, other than passenger ships, of 3,000 gross tonnage and upwards constructed on or after 1 July 2002.

VDRs are required to meet performance standards “not inferior to those adopted by the Organization”. Performance standards for VDRs were adopted in 1997 and give details on data to be recorded and VDR specifications. They state that the VDR should continuously maintain sequential records of preselected data items relating to status and output of the ship's equipment and command and control of the ship. The VDR should be installed in a protective capsule that is brightly coloured and fitted with an appropriate device to aid location. It should be entirely automatic in normal operation. Under the new regulation, the voyage data recorder system, including all sensors, shall be subjected to an annual performance test conducted by an approved testing or servicing facility to verify the accuracy, duration and recoverability of the recorded data.

Administrations may exempt ships, other than ro-ro passenger ships, constructed before 1 July 2002, from being fitted with a VDR where it can be demonstrated that interfacing a VDR with the existing equipment on the ship is unreasonable and impracticable.

VDRs for existing cargo ships

In December 2000, IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) adopted a resolution on the carriage of VDRs on existing cargo ships, which calls for a feasibility study to be carried out to ascertain the need for mandatory carriage of VDRs on these ships. The feasibility study, being conducted by the Sub-Committee on Safety of Navigation (and other Sub-Committees as appropriate), takes into account such factors as practicability, technical problems relating to the retrofitting of VDRs, adequacy of existing performance standards including the possible development of simplified standards, experience in the use of VDRs on ships already fitted with them, including data that could not have been obtained without VDRs, and relevant financial implications, including a cost-benefit analysis.

The aim is to finalize the study by 1 January 2004 so that, if the study demonstrates a compelling need for mandatory carriage of VDRs on existing cargo ships, relevant amendments to SOLAS Chapter V and the associated performance standards can be drafted.  In the meantime, the resolution invites Governments to encourage shipowners to install VDRs on existing cargo ships voluntarily, so that wide experience of their use may be gained.

Automatic Identification System (AIS)

Regulation 19 of the new Chapter V - Carriage requirements for shipborne navigational systems and equipment – sets out navigational equipment to be carried on board ships, according to ship type. Most equipment (gyrocompass, radar etc) was already required under the existing Chapter V, but the new regulation adds a requirement for carriage of automatic identification systems (AISs) capable of providing information about the ship to appropriately equipped shore stations, other ships and aircraft automatically.

The regulation requires AIS to be fitted aboard all ships of 300 gross tonnage and upwards engaged on international voyages, cargo ships of 500 gross tonnage and upwards not engaged on international voyages and passenger ships irrespective of size built on or after 1 July 2002.

It also applies to ships engaged on international voyages constructed before 1 July 2002, according to the following timetable:

· passenger ships, not later than 1 July 2003;

· tankers, not later than the first survey for safety equipment on or after 1 July 2003;

· ships, other than passenger ships and tankers, of 50,000 gross tonnage and upwards, not later than 1 July 2004.

Please note: An amendment adopted by the Diplomatic Conference on Maritime Security in December 2002 states that ships, other than passenger ships and tankers, of 300 gross tonnage and upwards but less than 50,000 gross tonnage, will be required to fit AIS not later than the first safety equipment survey after 1 July 2004 or by 31 December 2004, whichever occurs earlier. Ships fitted with AIS shall maintain AIS in operation at all times except where international agreements, rules or standards provide for the protection of navigational information.

A flag State may exempt ships from carrying AISs when ships will be taken permanently out of service within two years after the implementation date. Performance standards for AIS were adopted in 1998.

Performance standards for AIS were adopted in 1998. The new regulation requires that AIS shall:

  • provide information - including the ship's identity, type, position, course, speed, navigational status and other safety‑related information - automatically to appropriately equipped shore stations, other ships and aircraft;
  • receive automatically such information from similarly fitted ships;
  • monitor and track ships;
  • exchange data with shore-based facilities.

Clear waters ahead for ECDIS

Regulation of the new Chapter V also allows an electronic chart display and information system (ECDIS) to be accepted as meeting the chart carriage requirements of the regulation.

The regulation requires all ships, irrespective of size, to carry nautical charts and nautical publications to plan and display the ship’s route for the intended voyage and to plot and monitor positions throughout the voyage. But the ship must also carry back up arrangements if electronic charts are used either fully or partially. Performance standards for electronic charts were adopted in 1995, by resolution A.817(19)), which was amended in 1996 by resolution MSC.64 (67) to reflect back-up arrangements in case of ECDIS failure. Additional amendments were made in 1998 by resolution MSC 86.(70) to permit operation of ECDIS in RCDS mode.

Enlarged Chapter V reflects growth in technology

In all, the revised SOLAS Chapter V on Safety of Navigation has 35 regulations, compared to 23 in the present Chapter V.   In addition, a new Appendix to Chapter V gives rules for the management, operation and financing of the North Atlantic Ice Patrol, while the SOLAS Appendices giving an example Record of Equipment for the Passenger Ship Safety Certificate (Form P) and a Record of Equipment for the Cargo Ship Safety Equipment Certificate (Form E) are also revised to take into account the revised requirements in the new Chapter V.

SOLAS Background

Of all international conventions dealing with maritime safety, the most important is the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). It is also one of the oldest, the first version having been adopted at a conference held in London in 1914, in the wake of the Titanic disaster of 1912.

Since then there have been four other SOLAS conventions:  the second was adopted in 1929 and entered into force in 1933; the third was adopted in 1948 and entered into force in 1952; the fourth was adopted (under the auspices of IMO) in 1960 and entered into force in 1965; and the present version was adopted in 1974 and entered into force in 1980. It has now been ratified by 141 countries representing 98.34 per cent of world merchant shipping tonnage.


IMO – the International Maritime Organization – is the United Nations Specialized Agency with responsibility for the safety of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships.

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Lee Adamson, Public Information Manager on 020 7587 3153 (