Autonomous shipping


Technological innovation within the maritime industry is resulting in rapid developments that will see the commercial use of autonomous ships, whether they are controlled remotely or are fully autonomous. Such change requires robust regulation to ensure the safety of life at sea, as well as of cargo on board and of the vessel itself.

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.

In 2021 IMO conducted a regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships that was designed to assess existing IMO instruments to see how they might apply to ships that utilize 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, at its 108th session in July 2021. The FAL Committee approved the outcome of the RSE of treaties under its remit at FAL 46 in May 2022.

Developing a MASS Code

Following the completion of the scoping exercise and work begun during the MSC's 105th session, the Committee's 107th session in June 2023 made further progress on the development of a goal-based instrument regulating the operation of maritime autonomous surface ships. 

A MASS Working Group was established to progress the work on the MASS Code and to identify issues relevant to instruments under the purview of the Legal and Facilitation Committee. These will be considered by the Joint MSC/LEG/FAL Working Group on MASS (see below). 

The aim is to adopt a non-mandatory goal-based MASS Code to take effect in 2025, which will form the basis for a mandatory goal-based MASS Code, expected to enter into force on 1 January 2028.

Joint MSC/LEG/FAL Working Group 

A Joint MSC/LEG/FAL Working Group has been established as a cross-cutting mechanism to address common issues identified by the regulatory scoping exercises for the use of MASS conducted by each of the three Committees - MSC, Legal Committee and Facilitation Committee. 

The Joint MSC/LEG/FAL Working Group on MASS (MASS-JWG) met in September 2022 and April 2023. (Outcomes of these sessions on the right side on this page) 

MSC 107 (June 2023) noted that the Joint MSC/LEG/FAL Working Group on MASS had developed a table – intended as a living document – to identify preferred options for addressing common issues, such as the role, responsibilities competencies required of the master and crew for MASS; and identification and meaning of term "remote operator" and their responsibilities. 

The MASS-JWG will hold its next meeting in May 2024.

Interim guidelines for trials of autonomous ships 

The Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) 101st 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. 

Any personnel involved in MASS trials, whether remote operators 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 did the regulatory scoping exercise look at?

The scoping exercise was seen as a starting point that touched 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. It involved assessing a substantial number of IMO treaty instruments and identifying provisions which: 

  • applied to MASS and prevented MASS operations;  

  • applied to MASS and did not prevent MASS operations and require no actions;  

  • applied to MASS and did not prevent MASS operations but may need to be amended or clarified, and/or may contain gaps;  

  • 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. 

The outcome highlighted 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 involved the development of MASS terminology and definitions, including an internationally agreed definition of MASS and clarification of 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 identified included the need to address 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.   

Where can I find the regulatory scoping exercise outcomes? 

You can download the results of the three Committees' regulatory scoping exercises. 

Outcome of the Maritime Safety Committee RSE on safety-related treaties: MSC.1-Circ.1638 - Outcome Of The Regulatory Scoping ExerciseFor The Use Of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships... (Secretariat).pdf

Outcome of the FAL Committee RSE on the Facilitation Convention: FAL.5-Circ.49 - Outcome Of The Regulatory Scoping Exercise And Gap Analysis Of The Fal Convention With Res... (Secretariat).pdf

Outcome of the Legal Committee's RSE on liability and compensation treaties: LEG.1-Circ.11 - Outcome Of The Regulatory Scoping Exercise And Gap Analysis Of Conventions Emanating From... (Secretariat).pdf

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". Because of the cross-cutting issues relating to the commercial operation of autonomous ships that were identified by the regulatory scoping exercise, three IMO committees – the Maritime Safety Committee, the Legal Committee and the Facilitation Committee – are involved in work to ensure IMO instruments are fit for purpose and take account of the rapid technological developments taking place.  

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 will be limited to short voyages, for example from one specific port to another, across a short distance. 

In May 2023, IMO hosted a Symposium called "Making headway on the IMO MASS Code" . It explored the latest developments in autonomous shipping with the aim of contributing to the development of the MASS Code and establish a network for international cooperation. Read a summary of the event here

IMO hosted a Seminar on the Development of a Regulatory Framework for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) in 2021. Thought leaders from the areas of research, academia, business and government discussed the challenges and new approaches needed for the development of a MASS Code. Read more about the event here.  

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

Which treaties were looked at under the regulatory scoping exercise?

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 considered the Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL Convention).  

The FAL Committee's RSE concluded that the FAL Convention is able to address MASS operations into the instrument without major amendments. The results of the RSE mainly demonstrate that sections 1, 2 and 4 of the FAL Convention require a review or interpretation to accommodate MASS operations. Most requirements in section 3 of the FAL Convention have no application to MASS, however some provisions may require amendments. Sections 5, 6 and 7 do not affect MASS and are applicable in their current wording.

Legal Committee

The Legal Committee’s work on the scoping exercise generally 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. 

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 were high‑priority issues that must be addressed as a foundation for 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 most important of these were:

  • role and responsibility of the master;

  • role and responsibility of the remote operator;

  • questions of liability;

  • consistent definitions/terminology of MASS; and

  • carriage of certificates.

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 will need to operate within the legal framework of UNCLOS and, thus, UNCLOS will need to be considered.