Risk of fragmentation when it comes to autonomous ship regulation

The International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) has warned that there could be global disunity when it comes to autonomous ship regulation with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) expected to take many years to approve laws governing this new technology phenomenon.

The Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) at the IMO agreed in June to undertake a regulatory scoping exercise to determine the extent of the need to amend the regulatory framework to enable safe, secure and environmental operation of maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS) within the existing IMO instruments.

However, this scoping exercise is not due for completion until June 2020, and only after this date will work commence on a possible amendment of the existing rules or a separate code relating to MASS.

Long before IMO reaches agreement, a number of autonomous ships are set to be trading including the Yara Birkeland, a boxship conceived by fertilizer company Yara and tech firm Kongsberg Maritime, which is due to start trading in Norwegian waters towards the end of next year.

“It is likely that national rules for domestic trade will emerge while the IMO is still conducting its scoping exercise for international trade. Hopefully, this will not lead to a national fragmentation of rules, but rather as input to a future international harmonisation of the regulatory framework,” IUMI noted in a recent report.

The drawn out process of promulgating new maritime laws at the IMO formed a hot topic at the Maritime CEO Forum held in Singapore earlier this year with Frank Coles, the boss of tech firm Transas, telling delegates: “The way technology is changing now it will be impossible for IMO to catch up and then they are dead and buried.”

Three-quarters of respondents to the most recent MarPoll, an online quarterly shipping survey carried on this site, believe shipping’s global regulatory regime is under threat from a lack of consensus on major issues.

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.
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