The Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) Concept has a long way to go, beginning from the finalization of its regulatory framework, to the challenges the industry has to deal with. 


Regulatory landscape 

A) IMO Guidelines for MASS trials 

Supporting automation in the shipping industry, the International Maritime Organization approved in 2019 Interim guidelines (MSC.1/Circ.1604) for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) trials. 

Specificallyaccording to the guidelinestrials should be implemented in a way that the parties can ensure at least the same degree of safetysecurity and protection of the environment as provided by the relevant instruments. In addition, the potential risk arising from the trials should be appropriately identified and measures to reduce the risksto as low as reasonably practicable and acceptableshould be put in place. 

B) MSC 100

The IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 100) in December 2018, approved the framework and methodology for the regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS), noting a milestone in the development of the ship autonomy debate. 

Four levels of autonomous ships’ anatomy: 

Taking it a step further than just the regulations, shipping stakeholders have issued the four levels of autonomous vessels: 

  • Manned shiptraditional crewed vessel with a human operator making decisions 
  • Remote shipcontrolled by a human operator ashore 
  • Automated shiprunning pre-programmed software and can only operate within the scope of the algorithm 
  • Fully autonomous shipoperating system can calculate consequences and risks, and make decisions by itself. 

In the meantime, to boost the efforts in setting an autonomous regulatory landscape in the shipping industry, the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) published an advisory on autonomous functionality, presenting a new model of regulations in the form of a pyramid.  

This framework, based on IMO's Generic Guidelines for developing IMO Goal-Based Standards to guide the implementation of autonomous and remotely controlled functions, consists of: 

#1 Foundational Requirements: 

  • Data 
  • Cyber safety 
  • Software reliability 
  • Robustness 
  • Inter-operability 

#2 Verification of Conformity 

  • Verification and validation 

#3 Functional Requirements 

  • Smart: Monitoring analysis  
  • Semi-Autonomous: Monitoring Analysis Decision 
  • Autonomous: Monitoring Analysis, Decision and Action 

ABS commented that “In the implementation process during the development of autonomous vessels, the over-arching goals would be that the autonomous functionality is to be designed, constructed, operated and maintained for its planned mission safely, reliably and predictably.” 


What the future holds: Challenges around MASS 

Beginning from the implementation of guidelines, trials will follow in order to reach to the finalization of the project and its adoption from the whole shipping industry. Yet, it is not as easy as it may seem.  

Specifically, GSDM, a Global Security & Disaster Management company, has highlighted that the existent legal framework either has to be finalized or changed to “protect” the MASS. In other words, delays in regulations around automation in shipping may result to challenges, including security as well as disaster prevention and risk mitigation perspectives. 

In addition, another challenge arising from the mass concept can be seen in the insurance part of the maritime sector. John Southam, Loss Prevention Executive, The North of England P&I Association Limited, expressed that automation brings new risks, such as new definitions and new roles in the industry, that in order to efficiently work they have to be agreed between several interested parties, such as P&I clubs.  

An example stated by Mr. Southam includes the definition of the “master”. He noted that many of the codes and even their own P&I rules are based around known definitions, simple definitions such as “the master”. This appears several times in SOLAS, and even in the COLREGS, how will the definition of master translate to autonomous vessels? 

Another severe challenge the industry will have to deal with will be cyber security. A potential cyber-attack could heavily impact the operation of autonomous vessels or even the remote control centre ashore. 


 2019-2020 MASS achievements 

The shipping industry is following the global revolution around technology, taking a leap towards automation, keeping in mind that many shipping stakeholders are focusing on the development of MASS, such as One Sea – Autonomous Maritime Ecosystem; Established in 2016, it seeks to pave the way for autonomous shipping as early as 2025, validating Nordic countries as the front-runners in the field of automation. 

2018 marked the year when the maritime industry saw the launch of the world’s first autonomous shipping company, resulting from cooperation of Norwegian technology companies Wilhelmsen and Kongsberg. 

In 2019, the 12m-long autonomous boat SEA-KIT Maxlimer successfully transferred a cargo of oysters from West Mersea, UK to Oostende, Belgium, reportedly being the first commercial crossing of the North Sea by an autonomous ship. 

Another accomplishment was achieved in early 2020, when the Royal Navy conducted a four-day exercise, having installed an artificial intelligence system, to control the technologies, in amphibious ship Albion, while industry partners joined onboard to implement and oversee the system trials.