MASS Regulatory Process: What has happened so far

Regulations are now required to ensure safe global operations of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS).

When One Sea was created in 2014, we knew that regulations would be the most challenging and most necessary part in creating an operating autonomous ecosystem. As the maritime industry continues to embrace the benefits of digitalisation and the opportunities new technologies offer, the need for regulations to keep pace has become increasingly pressing.

Without global regulations, an autonomous ship – or ship that has highly automated systems onboard – that has been approved in one country will not necessarily be approved in another until it has repeated everything required to verify compliance again.

Current status of the regulatory process for MASS

The Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) decided at its 104th session on a new output on the “Development of a goal-based instrument for maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS)” and set a target completion year of 2025. The Committee agreed that the final goal would be a mandatory instrument.

Subsequent meetings have taken place where MASS was discussed by the three key committees at the International Maritime Organization (IMO): the Legal Committee (LEG); the Facilitation Committee (FAL); and MSC 105. Following these meetings, the outcomes of the Regulatory Scoping Exercises to assess how MASS could be regulated internationally were officially finalised – after understandable delays due to Covid-19 – which has resulted in work plans for each committee.

MSC 105 in April this year made significant strides towards creating an international regulatory framework for MASS, as presaged during MSC 104. It approved a roadmap for the regulatory work for MASS to move forward in MSC which includes a work plan for developing the IMO instruments and outlines the plan for developing a goal-based non-mandatory code for MASS for adoption in the second half of 2024 initially to meet the 2025 target. It is envisaged that the non-mandatory MASS code will then become a mandatory code from 1 January 2028.

The MSC roadmap is a live document that can adapt to change, but it has nevertheless set the course for developing the much-needed regulations. It is also important to note that by making the code goal-based, rather than prescriptive, the IMO is aiming to ‘future-proof’ the instrument covering autonomous ship operations.

MSC 105 also established an MSC MASS Correspondence Group, tasked with considering key principles and starting the necessary work to achieve the desired MASS code.

FAL and LEG are currently inviting proposals based on their MASS outputs for discussion at upcoming meetings.

A complex task ahead

Creating the MASS code is nonetheless going to be a complex task whose work has an impact on multiple IMO conventions – not just the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). Therefore, in addition to the roadmap, the committees agreed to establish a Joint MSC/LEG/FAL Working Group to address common issues and ensure communication between committees as the regulatory process progresses.

Amongst the challenges facing IMO delegations tasked with developing the MASS Code are the questions around terminology and scope. Standardised terminology and use of language is crucial when developing international regulations because it is essential that there is absolutely no ambiguity around definitions and regulator expectations on implementation. There needs to be a collective understanding between the industry and regulators based on agreed terminology.

Earlier this year, One Sea published a new whitepaper – Autonomous Ships: Terms of Reference for Rule Development which calls for urgency in developing common terms of reference covering autonomous and highly automated ship operations that can be used across the maritime industry. The paper also includes One Sea members industry proposal for defining the levels of automation in shipping, which sets out six levels that can be applied to various ship operations or an entire ship.

The MSC MASS Correspondence Group has been asked to consider amending definitions for MASS and degrees of autonomy if time allows, but it is important to acknowledge that regulations cannot be successfully developed if different definitions and interpretations of levels of automation persist.