International Maritime Organisation turns salty gaze on regulating robotic shipping

Who needs navigational aids on a self-driving tanker anyway?

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The International Maritime Organisation has woken up to the notion of robot boats – and is now pondering whether to regulate them.

Unmanned shipping, as a concept, has been around for a good few years. Rolls-Royce, makers of engines for aircraft and watercraft alike for many decades, even published a marketing paper about autonomous warships last year, building on its rather more serious plans for unmanned commercial shipping.

Today the IMO's Maritime Safety Committee – the greybeards who regulate the high seas, outside of individual nations' territorial waters – decided they will take a closer look at the rise of the maritime machines.

Although the dry official language of the MSC's statement today says merely that it has "established a correspondence group on [maritime autonomous surface ships, MASS] to test the framework of the regulatory scoping exercise agreed at the session" today, this is the starting point for potential worldwide regulation of the use of autonomous ships. At the moment this looks like potentially disapplying the parts of the international Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) conventions which require all ocean-going ships to carry human-usable navigational equipment and lifesaving gear such as lifeboats and lifejackets. If you have no humans aboard then you don't need any of this expensive gear, right?

The use case for robot shipping is the usual one; namely, the replacement of expensive and skilled human seafarers with artificial intelligence-powered robots that never tire, don't get drunk ashore on nights off and don't need holidays or sick pay.

According to the IMO, its secretary-general, Kitack Lim of South Korea, highlighted "the importance of remaining flexible to accommodate new technologies and so improve the efficiency of shipping 'while at the same time keeping in mind the role of the human element and the need to maintain safe navigation, further reducing the number of marine casualties and incidents'."

British company ASV Global is still building and sailing small semi-autonomous vessels out of its base near Portsmouth on the south coast, trialling these in more and more locations around the world. ®

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