The Evolution of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS)


As the maritime industry moves towards integrating autonomous ships, addressing regulatory, operational, technical, cybersecurity, and insurance challenges is crucial. MASS technology holds the potential to transform maritime operations, making them safer, more efficient, and environmentally friendly. Early and thorough planning, along with realistic trials, will be key to successfully navigating these challenges and realizing the full potential of autonomous maritime transportation, reports Britannia P&I.

Understanding Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS)

Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) are vessels that can operate independently of human interaction, poised to revolutionize the maritime industry by enabling safer, more efficient, and environmentally friendly transportation. A MASS aims to achieve all-weather situational awareness by utilizing technologies such as Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), infrared cameras, and various bridge equipment like radar, ARPA, echo sounder, DGPS, and AIS. These systems enable MASS to plot courses, detect and avoid obstacles, and make real-time decisions about route adjustments and collision avoidance. Machine learning algorithms are employed for predictive maintenance and management of machinery, optimizing performance and reducing the risk of malfunctions.

Continuous and reliable communication between the ship and the remote-control station is crucial, and trials must ensure redundancy in critical systems like power, steering, propulsion, and communication to maintain operational safety and integrity. Redundant systems act as backup mechanisms in case of failures, thereby reducing the risk of accidents and ensuring uninterrupted operation.

Regulatory Challenges

Current regulations for ship operations do not fully address the safety and environmental concerns posed by autonomous ships. To bridge these gaps, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is developing a goal-based MASS code, with a non-mandatory code planned for adoption by May 2025 and a mandatory code by January 1, 2032. The IMO has also issued interim guidelines for MASS trials, assigning responsibility to ensure compliance with existing IMO instruments or providing equivalent standards for safety and environmental protection. These standards must be accepted by the flag state of the ship and the coastal and port states where trials are conducted. Flag states should approve and document alternative designs as per IMO guidelines.

Operational Challenges

The area of MASS trials must be clearly defined, marked, and communicated to all relevant parties, involving the coordination of coastal, flag, and port states. Adequate training and understanding of automation systems are essential for personnel involved in MASS trials. They need to effectively interact with autonomous technology, monitor system performance, and intervene when necessary. Trials should maintain human control during tests, with clear chains of command and lines of communication regarding responsibility and authority for the safety of the MASS.

Technical Challenges

The novelty of the technology used in MASS and the absence of established testing standards necessitate a comprehensive risk assessment for trials. This assessment should identify anticipated risks and require cooperation among the flag state, classification society, and original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for approval. Both simulation tests and real-world sea trials are necessary to validate the system. Criteria must be established for when a trial should be aborted or if critical equipment becomes unavailable or unreliable.

Cyber Security and Insurance Considerations

Autonomous ships rely heavily on digital systems and connectivity, making them vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Robust cybersecurity measures and a cyber risk management plan are essential to protect against security breaches, data theft, and system manipulation. Furthermore, MASS trials will require similar insurance coverage as conventional ships. These trials present challenges in understanding the associated risks but also offer a learning opportunity for the future of maritime operations. Members wishing to conduct MASS trials are advised to submit detailed plans to the Club’s underwriting team in advance.

The Importance of Realistic Trials

There are many successful MASS models, but the testing of new technology or scaling up trials is still required. Trials often involve complex, unfamiliar, and untested technology, with an operational scope extending beyond coastal waters. To test the capabilities of these technologies under real operational conditions, trials must strive to be as realistic as possible. Planning for MASS trials should commence well in advance, with early consultation recommended with the flag state, classification society, and other stakeholders.

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Source: Britannia P&I