MASWRG conference told that UK could take a lead role in development of regulatory frameworks for autonomous vessel operations.

Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS) technology is already ‘light years’ ahead of where it was just few years ago but more needs to be done – especially on the regulatory and assurance fronts – in order for its full benefits to be realised. Those were key takeaways from the UK’s 7th annual MAS Regulatory Working Group conference held virtually over two days in late January.

Currently there are "huge steps forward" being taken in MAS – also often referred to as Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship (MASS) – technology with many different types of ship right across the world already carrying out remote operations, conference chair Commodore James Fanshawe, Chairman of the MASRWG said. Connectivity challenges are a major focus of research work at present, he added: "bringing these vessels into full communication with shore systems and control."

And while much of today’s maritime autonomous operations are of a specialised nature, taking place in sectors like defence and offshore, much of the technology being developed will have "equal applicability" to normal merchant ships, he added, where an important by-product should be a reduction in the incidence of human errors, generally reckoned to be involved in more than 80% of safety incidents at sea.

The UK is among the leading centres of maritime autonomous research, with Maritime UK having recently published Version 5 of its ‘Maritime Autonomous Ship Systems (MASS): UK Industry Conduct Principles and Code of Practice’, in December 2021.

UK Shipping Minister Robert Courts MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, described the UK as an ideal place to be developing a regulatory framework for autonomous vessel operations and promised government support "in the form of UK legislation." Currently such operations for merchant ships have to be approved under the Load Line Convention on a case-by-case basis, he said, which is time-consuming and inefficient. The UK is in danger of "reputational risk" if it lags behind international progress in this field, he added, concluding: "I don’t think there can be any doubt that the future of maritime includes autonomous ships."

Katrina Kemp, Maritime Autonomy Policy Lead at the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), pointed out that the IMO is currently working on a scoping exercise to identify barriers to creating a global regulatory framework but this is expected to take several years yet.

Cyber security was highlighted as another problem that needed to be addressed since the fast-evolving nature of MAS technology and its increased connectivity heighten security risks that in turn threaten safe navigation.

Andy McKeran, LR's Maritime Performance Services Director, stressed that the contribution of autonomous systems to enhancing maritime performance "isn’t the future, it’s now." He pointed out that "autonomous doesn’t always equate to uncrewed or unmanned" and that higher degrees of autonomy – such as Level 3: Remotely controlled ships without seafarers on board, controlled from another location; and Level 4: Fully autonomous ships able to take decisions and determine actions themselves – tend to be "most suited at present to small vessels operating on fixed point-to-point routes."

This was reinforced by a representative of Port of Tilbury’s London Container Terminal who pointed out that it may not always be possible for ports to retrofit the necessary handling and support systems for MASS operations in a cost-effective manner.

"I don’t want anyone to underestimate the challenges of introducing large-scale projects of Degree 3 and 4 into the UK," he said. "Degree 2 [i.e. remotely controlled ships with seafarers on board to take control if required] is preferable because of the flexibility of both infrastructure and vessel that can be put to other uses if necessary."

Research from innovation consultancy Thetius was cited suggesting some 50 companies worldwide are actively working on maritime autonomous technologies right now, with the global market worth an estimated $1.5 billion in 2020 and predicted to more than triple to $5.3bn by 2025. In addition, some $113 million of venture capital has been invested in start-ups developing unmanned and autonomous vessel technologies since 2010, with 2,775 patents registered relating to unmanned or autonomous surface ships, the vast majority in China, according to Thetius.

McKeran listed notable ‘hot spots’ for MASS research at present as Finland, – involving the likes of Wärtsilä and ABB"; Norway – with Kongsberg a driving force; Singapore – where the Maritime & Port Authority (MPA) is funding the so-called World’s Largest Ocean-Going Autonomous Vessel Programme’ and Korea – coordinated by KRISO (Korea Research Institute of Ships and Ocean Engineering), as well as the UK, where leading players include large defence-related BMT, Thales and BAE Systems, as well as smaller new entrants focused solely on autonomy such as SEA-KIT, Oceanautics and SeaBot XR, Lloyd’s Register being involved with many of the above-mentioned projects and partners.

"For LR and its peers, the focus of the autonomous opportunity is the use of this technology in inland waterways, coastal trade, small craft in defence and offshore," he added, "as well as what I term the dream – oceangoing vessels."

For larger, deep-sea vessels to realise that ‘dream’, the maritime industry needs to understand "feasible cases" for the use of autonomous operations together with the "commercial benefits", he continued. One key reason for companies not having done so is "the lack of regulatory assurance frameworks offering confidence in the technology they are being shown," the LR executive said, adding: "This is a key area where class can and is offering support."

Important ‘stepping stones’ towards large-ship autonomous operations are being laid, however, McKeran noted. For example, Evergreen was awarded LR’s ‘Digital Safe Security’ notation in late 2020 for its 12,000 TEU container ship Ever Forward, certifying that access for autonomous and remote monitoring of the ship’s systems had been provided and assessed.

The conference audience also heard how the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) was working with LR and others with the aim of developing a globally accepted assurance network for MASS systems. Andre Burgess, Assured Autonomous Programme Lead at NPL, said that for widespread acceptance of autonomous marine operations, confidence is needed in the "systems, data and decision-making" involved, a situation he described as analogous to the barrier to societal acceptance of driverless cars. This in turn will require an internationally accepted framework attesting to "ubiquitous, efficient and assured operations", he said, as well as "safety assurances and certification of systems" and design verification of technological innovations – no easy task given that most of the technology is "very new and paradigm-shifting."

Providing assurance of maritime autonomous systems is of fundamental importance, he concluded, since human beings should remain at the centre of all technology advances in the field - a sentiment expressed by many other speakers over the two-day conference. After all, it is presumably for humans’ benefit that autonomous operations are being developed, he wryly observed, meaning "their confidence in how these systems work is vital."