Autonomous shipping

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IMO aims to integrate new and advancing technologies in its regulatory framework - balancing the benefits derived from new and advancing technologies against safety and security concerns, the impact on the environment and on international trade facilitation, the potential costs to the industry, and their impact on personnel, both on board and ashore. IMO wants to ensure  that the regulatory framework for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) keeps pace with technological developments that are rapidly evolving.

IMO has recently completed a regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) that was designed to assess existing IMO instruments to see how they might apply to ships with varying degrees of automation. The regulatory scoping exercise (RSE) for safety treaties was finalized at the 103rd Session of the MSC in May 2021, and for treaties under the purview of the Legal Committee, in July 2021. 

The exercise involved assessing a substantial number of IMO treaty instruments under the remit of the MSC and identifying provisions which applied to MASS and prevented MASS operations; or applied to MASS and do not prevent MASS operations and require no actions; or applied to MASS and do not prevent MASS operations but may need to be amended or clarified, and/or may contain gaps; or have no application to MASS operations. 

The outcome highlights a number of high-priority issues, cutting across several instruments, that would need to be addressed at a policy level to determine future work.  

These involve the development of MASS terminology and definitions, including an internationally agreed definition of MASS and clarifying the meaning of the term “master”, “crew” or “responsible person”, particularly in Degrees Three (remotely controlled ship) and Four (fully autonomous ship).  

Other key issues include addressing the functional and operational requirements of the remote-control station/centre and the possible designation of a remote operator as seafarer.  

Further common potential gaps and themes identified across several safety treaties related to provisions containing manual operations and alarms on the bridge; provisions related to actions by personnel (such as firefighting, cargoes stowage and securing and maintenance); watchkeeping; implications for search and rescue; and information required to be on board for safe operation.  

The Committee noted that the best way forward to address MASS in the IMO regulatory framework could, preferably, be in a holistic manner through the development of a goal-based MASS instrument.  Such an instrument could take the form of a “MASS Code”, with goal(s), functional requirements and corresponding regulations, suitable for all four degrees of autonomy, and addressing the various gaps and themes identified by the RSE. 

The Committee invited Member States to submit proposals on how to achieve the best way forward to a future session of the MSC.  

You can read the outcome of the RSE by the MSC here: MSC.1-Circ.1638.

Why did IMO decide to look at the regulation of autonomous ships?

IMO's Strategic Plan (2018-2023) has a key Strategic Direction to "Integrate new and advancing technologies in the regulatory framework". This involves balancing the benefits derived from new and advancing technologies against safety and security concerns, the impact on the environment and on international trade facilitation, the potential costs to the industry, and finally their impact on personnel, both on board and ashore.

In 2017, following a proposal by a number of Member States, IMO's Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) agreed to include the issue of marine autonomous surface ships on its agenda. This was in the form of a scoping exercise to determine how the safe, secure and environmentally sound operation of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) may be introduced in IMO instruments.

The MSC recognized that IMO should take a proactive and leading role, given the rapid technological developments relating to the introduction of commercially operated ships in autonomous mode (operating without crew).

IMO's Legal and Facilitation Committees have also included the regulatory scoping exercise on their agendas, for conventions coming under the purview of those committees.

The scoping exercise was seen as a starting point that would touch on an extensive range of issues, including the human element, safety, security, liability and compensation for damage, interactions with ports, pilotage, responses to incidents and protection of the marine environment.

The regulatory scoping exercise (RSE) was finalized at the 103rd Session of the MSC in May 2021. 

Are there already autonomous ships in operation?

Autonomous and remote-controlled ships are being trialled in some sea areas.

Most predictions are that autonomous or semi-autonomous operation would be limited to short voyages, for example from one specific port to another, across a short distance.

Presentations on autonomous shipping made during a special a special session (2018) of IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee 100th session can be downloaded here.

Interim guidelines for trials of autonomous ships

The Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), 101 session, in June 2019 approved Interim guidelines for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) trials. (MSC.1-Circ.1604).

Among other things, the guidelines say that trials should be conducted in a manner that provides at least the same degree of safety, security and protection of the environment as provided by the relevant instruments. Risks associated with the trials should be appropriately identified and measures to reduce the risks, to as low as reasonably practicable and acceptable, should be put in place.

Onboard or remote operators of MASS should be appropriately qualified for operating MASS subject to the trial. Any personnel involved in MASS trials, whether remote or onboard, should be appropriately qualified and experienced to safely conduct MASS trials. Appropriate steps should be taken to ensure sufficient cyber risk management of the systems and infrastructure used when conducting MASS trials.

What was the methodology for the scoping exercise?

The framework and methodology for the MSC's regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) was approved by MSC 100. The Legal Committee decided to follow the same approach as MSC and a slightly adjusted framework and methodology for the LEG’s regulatory scoping exercise was approved by LEG 106. The Facilitation Committee (FAL 43) agreed a similar process.

For each instrument related to maritime safety and security, and to liability and compensation, and for each degree of autonomy, provisions were be identified which:

  • apply to MASS and prevent MASS operations; or
  • apply to MASS and do not prevent MASS operations and require no actions; or
  • apply to MASS and do not prevent MASS operations but may need to be amended or clarified, and/or may contain gaps; or
  • have no application to MASS operations.

The degrees of autonomy identified for the purpose of the scoping exercise were:

  • Degree one: Ship with automated processes and decision support: Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Some operations may be automated and at times be unsupervised but with seafarers on board ready to take control.
  • Degree two: Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. Seafarers are available on board to take control and to operate the shipboard systems and functions.
  • Degree three: Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. There are no seafarers on board.
  • Degree four: Fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

Which treaties were being looked at?

Maritime Safety Committee (MSC)

The list of instruments to be covered in the MSC’s scoping exercise for MASS includes those covering:

  • safety and maritime security (SOLAS);
  • collision regulations (COLREG);
  • loading and stability (Load Lines);
  • training of seafarers and fishers (STCW, STCW-F);
  • search and rescue (SAR);
  • tonnage measurement (Tonnage Convention); Safe Containers (CSC); and
  • special trade passenger ship instruments (SPACE STP, STP).

Facilitation Committee

The Facilitation Committee is considering the Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL Convention). The process is expected to be completed in 2022.

Legal Committee

The Committee completed its work on the regulatory scoping exercise (RSE) of conventions emanating from the Legal Committee for the use of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS).
In general, the RSE concluded that MASS could be accommodated within the existing regulatory framework of LEG conventions without the need for major adjustments or a new instrument. While some conventions can accommodate MASS as drafted, others may require additional interpretations or amendments to address potential gaps and themes that were revealed through the RSE.

The most important of these were:
  • the role and responsibility of the master;
  • the role and responsibility of the remote operator;
  • questions of liability;
  • consistent definitions/terminology of MASS; and
  • carriage of certificates.
It was noted that both the Maritime Safety and Legal Committees had concluded that the role and responsibilities of the master and the remote operator are high‑priority issues that must be addressed as a foundation for any further work. Some specific legal terms required consideration in the context of harm caused by autonomous technology, like the concepts of "fault", "negligence" and "intention". The LEG RSE concluded that consideration of these issues would best be addressed jointly between the committees, so that both technical and legal aspects and questions of liability are taken into account, while keeping in mind the different purposes and functions of conventions under the purview of LEG and those under MSC.

The working group also noted that while the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), was not considered as part of the LEG RSE, as it is not an IMO Convention, MASS would need to operate within the legal framework of UNCLOS and, thus, UNCLOS will need to be considered in IMO's future work on MASS, particularly if IMO developed an instrument regulating MASS operations.

The Committee:
  • approved the outcome of the RSE and gap analysis of conventions emanating from the Legal Committee with respect to MASS;
  • noted that, in general, MASS can be accommodated within the existing regulatory framework of LEG conventions without the need for major adjustments;
  • noted that coordination among the committees will be necessary moving forward, in particular regarding terminology and definitions;  
  • invited Member States to submit proposals for a new output on MASS for those issues identified to be specific to the Legal Committee; 
  • noted that conventions not under the auspices of IMO, such as UNCLOS and MLC, 2006, may need to be considered in IMO's future work on MASS, particularly if IMO developed an instrument regulating MASS operations; and
  • endorsed the recommendation that the outcome of the LEG RSE should be circulated through a LEG Circular. (Download RSE outcome here: (coming soon)

The list of instruments covered in the Legal Committee's scoping exercise for MASS included:

Conventions under the purview of the Legal Committee:

  • BUNKERS 2001 – International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage, 2001.
  • CLC 1969 – International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage, 1969.
  • CLC PROT 1976 – Protocol of 1976 to amend the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage, 1969.
  • CLC PROT 1992 – Protocol of 1992 to amend the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage, 1969.
  • FUND PROT 1992 – Protocol of 1992 to amend the International Convention on the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage, 1971.
  • FUND PROT 2003 – Protocol of 2003 to the International Convention on the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage, 1992.
  • NUCLEAR 1971 – Convention relating to Civil Liability in the Field of Maritime Carriage of Nuclear Material, 1971.
  • PAL 1974 – Athens Convention relating to the Carriage of Passengers and Their Luggage by Sea, 1974.
  • PAL PROT 1976 – Protocol of 1976 to the Athens Convention relating to the Carriage of Passengers and Their Luggage by Sea, 1974.
  • PAL PROT 2002 – Protocol of 2002 to the Athens Convention relating to the Carriage of Passengers and Their Luggage by Sea, 1974.
  • LLMC 1976 – Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims, 1976.
  • LLMC PROT 1996 – Protocol of 1996 to amend the Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims, 1976.
  • SUA 1988 – Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, 1988.
  • SUA PROT 1988 – Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf, 1988.
  • SUA 2005 – Protocol of 2005 to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.
  • SUA PROT 2005 – Protocol of 2005 to the Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Fixed Platforms Located on the Continental Shelf.
  • SALVAGE 1989 – International Convention on Salvage, 1989.
  • NAIROBI WRC 2007 – Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks, 2007.
  • HNS PROT 2010 – Protocol of 2010 to the International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in Connection with the Carriage of Hazardous and Noxious Substances by Sea, 1996.

Conventions emanating from the Legal Committee, with shared cognizance with other IMO committees

  • INTERVENTION 1969 – International Convention relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties, 1969.
  • INTERVENTION PROT 1973 – Protocol relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Pollution by Substances other than Oil, 1973.

Joint treaties with IMO and other UN bodies, emanating from the Legal Committee

  • International Convention on Maritime Liens and Mortgages, 1993 (joint with UNCTAD).
  • International Convention on Arrest of Ships, 1999 (joint with UNCTAD).