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Autonomous ship regulation ‘a bigger challenge than the technology’

Likely upcoming remote-controlled vessels and Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) will force all members of the maritime sector and maritime nations to cooperate in ensuring a regulatory regime is in place that covers unmanned ships, according to a gathering at the Insurance institute of London (IIL) covered by Insurance Marine News.

Robert Veal, a research fellow at the University of Southampton, was introduced in the Old Library at Lloyd’s by Andrew Bardot, executive officer at International Group of P&I Clubs. Bardot noted that, relatively speaking, the technology of unmanned ships was the easy part; it was the regulatory framework that was going to prove difficult. “I think that the important thing for insurers is to get the legal and regulatory framework that will surround the operation of these ships and what effect that will have on insurers. Technology moves quickly. Regulation moves slowly”, Bardot said. He also noted that, although the lack of human error might be a silver lining for marine underwriters, it might turn out to be “a bit of a headache for liability underwriters”.

Veal discussed Rolls-Royce’s project to develop unmanned ships soon. He noted that unmanned vessels are not new, having been in use for many years by marine scientific research operations and the defence sector. The difference was that hitherto they had nearly all been small, less than 10 m in length. It was the potential introduction of 500 grt-plus vessels that would force a closer look at the existing regulatory framework.

It would clearly be an advantage if the vessels could be brought within existing frameworks, said Veal.

Broadly speaking, Veal said that the new technology could be split between remote-controlled vessels ad autonomous vessels. “For our purposes this binary distinction is critical”, said Veal. In principle, an unmanned vessel could legally be described as “a ship”, although the UN law of sea convention article 94, SOLAS regulation 14 chapter 5, COLREGS rules 2 and 5, and STCW chapter 8 all pose certain problems, particularly in the autonomous unmanned craft sector. COLREGS in particular, felt Veal, requires “contemporaneous human sentience”, although this did not necessarily entail a person being physically on board the ship. COLREGS specifically requires the ability to step outside the letter of the law if the person in charge (i.e., Master) felt that to do so would prevent an accident – a requirement currently beyond the capability of the algorithms in autonomous vessels. It could also be claimed, said Veal, that STCW does not apply in the case of unmanned ships, as its wording consistently refers to people being on board.

Veal concluded that for remote-controlled vessels, it was likely that the vessels would work within the internationally accepted standards and regulations. However, for autonomous vessels, where there would be no human mind ready to take over in real time, Veal felt that several amendments to important provisions would be needed.

Veal also noted that the commercial case for unmanned vessels was far from compelling, with crew costs now down to about a third of running costs. He also said that significant international cooperation would be needed, while at the moment there was little international dialogue on the issue.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. We see growing ship traffic control scenarios being implemented in different forms, is this the start of a global traffic management? It took aviation 15 years to get this right. This is certainly required for any form of unmanned vessels on a large scale, I don’t see any country allowing unmanned vessels to sail by without some control.

    Technology is not the issue, regulations and a business case are. Maritime has many challenges as it seeks to hold its position in shipping cargo, going autonomous is unlikely to be the golden answer.

  2. Yes. of course it can be done.

    The question is – will it save money?

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