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What are the challenges of autonomous ships navigation on board masterless vessels?

Autonomous ships, Challenges, whether legislative, sociological or technological, form part of our daily work routine. Contrary to previous decades, innovative models do not require years or even months to cross an ocean. Evolution tends to spread very fast, more so nowadays when millennials are rapidly engaging themselves in managerial roles largely concerned with quick and effective product placement.

The recent emergence of blockchain technologies, the steady infiltration of cryptocurrencies in our lives and the recently introduced GDPR rules have proved that shipping, like any other sector involved in the carriage of persons and goods, is also not immune to such novelties.

Unmanned technology is also gaining particular momentum within the shipping industry. The aim of such technology is clearly that of supporting the ship operator, cargo owner and ultimate consumer by reducing human-derived risks and operational costs connected with the carriage of goods by sea. However, when it comes to ships and navigation one must keep in mind that the lawmaker often ranks the protection of seafarers and of the sea environment at the top of its priorities, ahead of such strictly navigational or commercial aspects which also arise from the use of autonomous ships. It will be interesting to see how these two differing interests can and should coexist next to each other.

Use of driverless means of transport has become common across various sectors of public transportation. Many capital cities have adopted driverless metro systems for years now. The same is happening with respect to the private transportation by car, although the latter is still going through (an advanced) testing phase.

The difference between such means of transport lies mainly on the number of variables that these come across throughout their operation. As metros operate on a one-direction line, collisions can be easily reduced through a number of mechanical and electronic precautions. On the other hand, during their journey, cars come across other cars, buses, trucks, pedestrians, animals and different meteorological events, and so cannot make a linear journey.

What does autonomy mean with particular reference to ships? The International Maritime Organisation has identified four different types of vessel autonomy.

The first are ships with automated processes and decision support where seafarers operate and control systems and functions directly from the vessel and only some operations may be automated. The second are remotely controlled ships where seafarers are on board the vessel although the ship is controlled and operated from another location. The third are remotely controlled ships without seafarers on board where the vessel is controlled and operated from another location with no

seafarers on board. Finally, the fourth are fully autonomous ships where the operation is performed automatically by the vessel’s operating system.

Trials on autonomous ships have already commenced in Norway and Finland. Denmark has also taken steps to regulate this particular aspect of navigation; with the first autonomous ship to be used for subsea positioning, surveying and environmental monitoring currently registered under the British flag. The European Union has also invested in research projects such as the EU’s FP7 project (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks).

The introduction of automation, as happened in other industries, would produce an immediate and tangible effect on the workforce on board ships and port operators engaged in the loading and offloading of cargo. On the other hand this would be beneficial for IT developers involved in the creation of software meant to govern navigation and protecting same from the risk of cyber-attacks. Automation might be welcomed by insurers, and a bit less by ship litigators, since with respect to the cargo loading and unloading procedures it will reduce the amount of mistakes deriving from human error.

However, one of the main obstacles faced by autonomous ships lies in the current legal framework within which their manned counterparts operate. In fact most – if not all – maritime conventions (and charter parties) assume that vessels operate with crew on board – this is the case, for example, of the Maritime Labour Convention or the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watch keeping for Seafarers – a requirement an autonomous ship would unlikely be able to satisfy.

Another challenging aspect concerning autonomous ships revolves around the implementation of the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) in particular when these will be navigating alongside manned ships. The COLREGS often contain provisions referring to the human element; referring for example to “the ordinary practice of seamen” test, that is, what a reasonably competent mariner should do in a given situation (similarly to the bonus paterfamilias test used in civil law).

Automation would require practitioners to start considering accidents which might arise, for example, when an operator makes a poor decision in reliance on wrong information provided by the vessels’ sensors due to a technical failure. Such instances are bound to raise further questions on the apportionment of liability between the operator, manufacturer or software developer and ship- owner.

Moreover, within a shipping ambit different types and degrees of liability already coexist next to each other: that of the ship-owner (or the bareboat charterer) for crew’s actions (i.e. COLREGS); or that of the registered owner (i.e. pollution at sea conventions) while other forms of liability make the ship liable in its own right (e.g. maritime liens).

Apportionment of liability between the ship-owner, software developer and manufacturer is an aspect not to be underestimated even in such a context. How would an autonomous ship be expected to intervene in case should it encounter, throughout her route, another ship in distress? Also, where would responsibility lie in the case of environmental damage? Will the ship-owner be held accountable or will responsibility for the ensuing damage lie on the software provider, for

example, for not having developed a sound algorithm or on the vessel’s sensors’ manufacturer for their technical failure?

Legal clarity around cyber liability and collision regulations is fundamental if autonomous ships want to sail free on our seas and oceans, especially before the maritime industry starts investing in infrastructure and skills needed to for unmanned ships to reach a commercial level.

The answers to these questions are far from clear, and much work needs to be done before international solutions are in place. The Comité Maritime International (CMI), of which the Malta Maritime Association is a proud and active member, has recently established a working group on maritime law for unmanned craft, aimed at analysing how international conventions and regulations can adapt themselves to autonomous ships.

Many in the industry, in view of a lack of clear regulations in this respect, have welcomed this news in a conservative manner. Truth is that you cannot stop innovation from happening. Not, at least, in today’s world where ideas travel at the speed of sound from one corner of the world to another and with such a multitude of players wishing to gain new shares in an often saturated market. The interests in such area are many, from that of ship builders wishing to consolidate or grow their market share, to that of the ship owner wishing to cut costs or that of IT developers wishing to expand their reach in this industry, to that of crew members wishing to safeguard their jobs.

The importance of such a new means of navigation, although still far from becoming an everyday reality, has generated such an interest that even the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee kicked off the procedure leading to the regulation of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). This exercise aims at regulating aspects concerning safety, security and environment. IMO’s focus is international trade facilitation, analysis of potential costs of the industry and the impact on individuals operating both off and onshore. The IMO will first look into the application of current legislation onto MASS and ascertain whether each specific provision can be applied to it and the regulations that need to be amended or introduced.

A possible key to facilitating navigation of autonomous ships on our seas and oceans could lie in the adoption of a uniform and linear set of rules modelled on the current IMO framework. It is submitted that a mere temporary or piecemeal update of regulation is not sufficient. Rules should, as much as possible, contain self-updating provisions able to cater for current as well as future technological advances. Shipping, more than any other sector in view of its global breadth, requires common and uniform standards and this can clearly only be achieved through the intervention of the International Maritime Organisation.

autonomous ships!

Source: Times of Malta


maritime cyber security Kongsberg Maritime director of autonomy Peter Due explains why e-navigation and technology developed for the Yara Birkeland project will enable a future of autonomous shipping

ECDIS and e-navigation will be essential for generations of future autonomous ships. Although the first unmanned ships will be remotely controlled and operating in coastal waters, in the long term there will be ocean-going autonomous ships, with e-navigation technology monitoring their progress onshore.

IMO placed ocean-going autonomous vessels firmly on the global agenda during the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) 99 session in May this year, by implementing a working group to conduct a regulatory scoping exercise for using MASS (Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships)*.

Kongsberg Maritime will be part of that working group and will deliver technology to the world’s first all-electric, zero emissions and autonomous container vessel, Yara Birkeland. This ship is scheduled to transport fertiliser products along a 30 nautical mile route to the ports of Brevik and Larvik next year and by 2020 is likely to be unmanned.

Kongsberg Maritime director of autonomy Peter Due said new navigation and collision avoidance systems that centre on e-navigation technology were needed for this project, as Yara Birkeland will operate on a busy waterway.

Kongsberg drew on its experience in autonomous underwater vehicles, dynamic positioning, ECDIS and sensor fusion as a foundation for autonomous navigation. But Mr Due explained to Marine Electronics & Communications that more development was required. “Harmonising with artificial intelligence, machine learning and digital twin technology enables the extreme level of safety required,” he said.

Mr Due said Yara Birkeland’s operations will be planned, pretested and optimised in the cloud using the Kognifai digital platform and its digital twin that Kongsberg generated. This includes navigation in different metocean conditions.

“The twin integrates all data including weather, currents, tides and temperature with a detailed physical ship model,” said Mr Due. “We can then decide the optimum route and simply transfer it to the ship’s autonomy engine, navigation systems and ECDIS when it is in port,” he continued.

“Once the ship sets off, sensor fusion comes into play, enabling the autonomy engine, working with the onboard digital twin and e-navigation systems to adjust and reroute at sea according to the going conditions and other vessels in the vicinity.”

It is this dynamism a fully autonomous navigation system requires that led to the establishment of the Hull to Hull (H2H) EU-funded research project. This will develop technical solutions for safer navigation in close proximity of other stationary or moving vessels and objects.

H2H will use the European Global Navigation Satellite System to enhance safety in busy waters and during close manoeuvring. “This will help mariners to make the correct navigation decisions and will create the fundamental conditions for autonomous vessel navigation,” said Mr Due. Data can be used as an input to an autonomy controller.

Navigational safety is essential if the benefits of MASS are ever to be truly realised”

Ensuring e-navigation and collision avoidance technology works correctly will be fundamental to autonomous shipping. “Navigational safety is essential if the benefits of MASS are ever to be truly realised,” said Mr Due.



Autonomous Ships – Rolls-Royce has completed a research project it says demonstrates that the operation of autonomous vessels can meet, if not exceed, current collision avoidance (COLREG) rules.

The MAchine eXecutable Collision regulations for Marine Autonomous Systems (MAXCMAS) project included partners Lloyd’s Register, Warsash Maritime Academy (WMA), Queen’s University Belfast and Atlas Elektronik (AEUK).

The team found that use of newly developed algorithms allowed existing COLREGs to remain relevant in a crewless environment, finding that artificial intelligence-based navigation systems were able to enact the rules to avoid collision effectively, even when approaching manned vessels were interpreting the rules differently.

A key aspect of the research was the use of WMA’s networked bridge simulators. The simulators were used to analyze reactions from the crew when faced with a range of real-world situations and subsequently hone the MAXCMAS algorithms.

Rolls-Royce Future Technologies Group’s Eshan Rajabally, who led the project, said: “Through MAXCMAS, we have demonstrated autonomous collision avoidance that is indistinguishable from good seafarer behavior, and we’ve confirmed this by having WMA instructors assess MAXCMAS exactly as they would assess the human.”

During the development project, Rolls-Royce and its partners adapted a commercial-specification bridge simulator as a testbed for autonomous navigation. This was also used to validate autonomous seafarer-like collision avoidance in likely real-world scenarios. Various simulator-based scenarios were designed, with the algorithms installed in one of WMA’s conventional bridge simulators. This also included Atlas Elektronik’s ARCIMS mission manager Autonomy Engine, Queen’s University Belfast’s Collision Avoidance algorithms and a Rolls-Royce interface.

During sea trials aboard AEUK’s ARCIMS unmanned surface vessel, collision avoidance was successfully demonstrated in a real environment under true platform motion, sensor performance and environmental conditions.

“The trials showed that an unmanned vessel is capable of making a collision avoidance judgment call even when the give-way vessel isn’t taking appropriate action,” said Ralph Dodds, Innovation & Autonomous Systems Programme Manager at AEUK. “What MAXCMAS does is make the collision avoidance regulations applicable to the unmanned ship.”

The MAXCMAS technology and system has been thoroughly tested both at sea and under a multitude of scenarios using desktop and bridge simulators, says Rolls-Royce, proving that autonomous navigation can meet existing COLREG requirements.




Autonomous Ships – Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) meets for its 99th session 16-25 May, with an IMO Forum on 15 May.

Adoption of amendments

The MSC is expected to adopt, inter-alia, amendments to the following instruments:


  • Amendments to SOLAS regulations II-1/1 and II-1/8-1, concerning the computerized stability support for the master in case of flooding for existing passenger ships. Also set for approval are related Guidelines on operational information for masters in case of flooding for passenger ships constructed before 1 January 2014.
  • Amendments to SOLAS chapter IV, replacing all references to “Inmarsat” with references to a “recognized mobile satellite service” and consequential amendments to the 1994 and 2000 HSC Codes and the 2008 SPS Code.

International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code

  • Amendments to update the Code in line with the latest recommendations from the United Nations Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods, which sets the basic requirements for all transport modes. The amendments include new provisions regarding IMO type 9 tank, a set of new abbreviations for segregation groups and special provisions for carriage of lithium batteries and of vehicles powered by flammable liquid or gas

Autonomous Ships

Polar Code – second phase
The International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code) entered into force in 2017 under both the SOLAS and MARPOL treaties. The MSC is expected to consider how the Polar Code provisions might be applied in the future to non-SOLAS vessels, including cargo ships of less than 500 gross tonnage, fishing vessels and pleasure yachts, with a view to instructing the Ship Design and Construction (SDC) Sub-Committee.

Piracy and armed robbery against ships
The MSC will receive an update on reported incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships. IMO received reports of 203 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships worldwide in 2017, the lowest for over 20 years, confirming the current downward year on year trend, with a reduction of about 8% at the global level. In the Gulf of Guinea, the number of incidents reported to the Organization decreased last year to 48 incidents, against 62 in 2016. However, in the first four months of 2018, the number of incidents significantly increased in the region, with 36 incidents reported, against 17 in the same period in 2017. Piracy and armed robbery remain active threats and Governments and the shipping industry need to maintain their guard.



Maritime Cyber Security

More than half of 6,000 seafarers who took part in a crew connectivity survey have had a part of their role automated over the last two years, and 98% of these seafarers are positive about the change.

The largest ever survey of seafarers to date revealed that nearly all who took part feel that technology and automation provide great opportunity to enhance their job roles and shipping operations. Roger Adamson, Futurenautics Maritime’s chief executive officer, who presented the results during the report’s launch in London this week, said that for the first time Futurenautics looked into the “weird and wonderful technology of the future that everyone talks about – robotics, automation, big data, analytics, unmanned ships,” these topics which had not been explored before.

Adamson explained that they first started talking to seafarers about automation levels. “53% of them came back and said we have had one or more components of our role automated within the last two years. That figure increased to 72% when we included officers.”

Maritime Cyber Security

The impact of automation on seafarers and officers’ roles proved to be positive, with the majority (98%) confirming it had helped rather than hindered them in their role at sea. Adamson also confirmed that automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and augmented/virtual reality, were viewed as opportunities by the majority of seafarers, rather than as threats, which came as a surprise to Futurenautics. According to Adamson, most saw these processes and technologies as a way to enhance the ability for crew to operate the vessel and do their jobs more efficiently.