UK aspirations to establish regulatory framework for autonomous shipping become clearer

The UK Department for Transport (DfT) has announced it is set to ‘unleash the UK’s potential as a world leader in future technologies’ with proposals to support the development of autonomous ships and shipping. The UK government is proposing to amend the current legal framework to take powers in primary legislation to regulate all Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) regardless of size, including craft that would not traditionally be considered ships.

The benefits of this approach would be to:
– Give the UK the powers to ensure the new and growing sector of MASS is appropriately regulated and supported;
– Ensure there is a cohesive approach to maritime operations and regulatory oversight as between MASS and non-MASS;
– Ensure that all vessels in the UK fleet and operating in UK waters are built, surveyed, operated and inspected to ensure they do not cause harm to other maritime users, the environment, human health, property or resources;
– Allow the UK to provide an active and informed position in international discussions that will shape the regulation of MASS internationally and the development of an IMO instrument;
– Prepare the UK domestic law framework for future changes in international law;
– Another option would be for the UK to take its experience on the regulation of MASS to the international discussions to shape the debate and therefore to minimise this risk.

The Maritime & Coastguard (MCA) may need to be given powers to define and clarify terms and roles for the operation of MASS, in addition to those defined in the primary legislation This would allow flexibility to develop appropriate definitions in secondary legislation as the MASS industry evolves. However, in the absence of any new legislation, the MCA would continue to utilise the exemption that is available through The Merchant Shipping (Load Line) Regulations 1998, to allow autonomous shipping to continue to operate within UK waters and under the UK Flag.

MASS would also continue to be obliged to comply with all other applicable Regulations. The Workboat Code would be updated for remotely operated surface vessels under 24 metres in length.

Wait for the IMO to produce new regulation for MASS
A third option for the UK would be to wait for the IMO to produce new regulation for MASS. In fact, the most recent discussion at IMO indicated that, following a regulatory scoping exercise, further work is needed to identify how to regulate the safe running of autonomous and remotely operated vessels internationally.

Based on current workloads, the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) of the IMO has indicated that a new instrument could be developed, but not before 2028.

Marine equipment
It is acknowledged that the equipment which is currently covered by the 2016 Regulations, and the standards that are applied, may need to be amended to include new types of equipment. In particular, the regulation and type approval of software systems and algorithms may need to be considered independently of the (variety of) hardware they may ultimately be used with.

Changes may also be necessary to the legislative framework governing maritime security to support the UK’s preferred approach to regulating MASS for a number of reasons:
– To resolve definitional issues such as ‘ship’ and ‘master’, which appear in the ASMA 1990, in a similar way to the definitional issues with the MSA 1995;
– To ensure the offences in Part 2 of the AMSA 1990 against the safety of ships and fixed platforms are appropriately applied to MASS and ROCs. For example, the UK wish to ensure that it is an offence to seize control of an unmanned ship through remote operation even where the ship then does not present a danger to navigation;
– To ensure Part 3 of the AMSA 1990 also extends to cover ROCs;
– To ensure the UK has the power to implement international requirements for maritime security on MASS or ROCs;
– To ensure the UK has the powers to set standards for security and cyber security for MASS and ROCs.

Download the review document: UK Government Maritime Autonomy and Remote Operations

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