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Maritime regulator gets set to allow autonomous ships on the high seas


As new autonomous ship technologies race ahead we mustn’t forget that nothing happens unless the regulators allow it, but now the dam’s bursting.


It can be said that the majority of people and companies normally see change coming well before it arrives, take the arrival of self-driving cars for example, we all by now know they’re coming. And it’s also often relatively easy to figure out what the impact of a new trend, or technology, will be. But often what’s difficult is understanding the “when” – when will this new trend arrive, when will the tipping point for the industry occur, and when should people or companies start planning for its arrival so they can either mitigate its impact, or ride, or lead the wave?


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One of the biggest indicators that the pace of change is about to accelerate is when regulators soften and change their stance, for example, allowing companies to test new concepts, or sell or operate new things. And it’s exactly the same with autonomous ships – if the regulators say no then nothing changes, but if they say yes, well, then an entire industry changes, and the effects of that ripple across every industry on Earth, and this is precisely what’s now happening in the world of shipping. It now looks like we are seeing the start of the end of manned shipping on the high seas.

Following a proposal by a number of countries around the world to include autonomous ships on its agenda, last week the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Maritime Safety Committee announced that it has now started the formal process of establishing a new legal framework that will allow companies to “responsibly, safely and securely operate” the first generation of “Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships” (MASS) in international waters, and given the fact that the world’s first officially recognised GPS spoofing attack put 20 cargo ships 32km inland at an airport, I’ll wager that security could be an interesting challenge…


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The IMO’s starting point will be to map and assess how the existing international regulations can be applied to autonomous ships and maritime technologies and to begin with they are going to identify the IMO regulations that currently preclude or prevent unmanned operations, identify applications that have no impact on unmanned operations, and lastly identify regulations that do not preclude autonomous operations but that might need to be amended.

“Despite some concern, it was generally agreed that the IMO needs to start its work now. There was also general agreement that the IMO must take into consideration how developments will affect the seafarers,” the Danish Maritime Authority said.

“There was a surprisingly high level of support for starting the work on the regulation of autonomous ships, even from countries expected to be negative as they are major suppliers of seafarers,” added Lasse Karlsen, Technical Director in Norwegian Maritime Authority.


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However, while it looks like the scoping exercise won’t be completed until 2020, after all, technology moves fast and regulators move slowly and cautiously, many of the autonomous ship builders, who are racing to fill the seas with drone ships, such as Rolls Royce, who announced their plans to develop autonomous ships last year, believe that the first regulations to allow autonomous operations might first appear in 2023, although that said, bearing in mind that autonomous ships look like they can cut the cost of shipping not by a small amount, but by up to 22 percent, they are hoping that this date can be pulled forwards.

At the same time though, while the IMO regulates international waters individual sovereign states, who all control their own waters, can start trials and operations today, at their own discretion. And that’s not something that’s lost on Australia who recently announced they’ll welcome operators with open arms, and Norway, who in 2018 will trial, albeit initially with a small crew, the world’s first fully autonomous cargo ship the YARA Birkeland.


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As the number of autonomous and autonomous capable ships grows, from US Navy robot boats and mine hunters like the Sea Hunter, and the 600ft destroyer USN Zumwalt, to Amsterdam’s Roboats it looks like the Robo-ships are coming.

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