International Maritime Organization chief outlines cautious approach as developers seek advances for autonomous technology on the water
OSLO—International maritime regulators are preparing for a likely lengthy process to write safety rules for autonomous ships, even as researchers advance technology they say could bring robot vessels to the oceans in the next few years.
“Autonomous ships are like driverless Google cars, but much more complicated,” International Maritime Organization Secretary-General Kitack Lim said in an interview.
The IMO, an arm of the United Nations that sets rules for international shipping operations, said it has no timeline for when crewless ships will get the green light to sail across the oceans, a move that would drastically change seaborne global logistics chains.
Mr. Lim said any new legislation would be based on existing practices for safe navigation, ship design, seafarer training and liability in case of a ship collision or oil spills in the ocean.
“All these issues must be thoroughly investigated in order to amend or create something new,” Mr. Lim said. “This investigation will be completed next year, and only then we can have a substantial discussion on where we should go.”
“I understand that shipowners will have unmanned ships in mind when they order new vessels, but they have to wait until next year for some kind of a time frame,” he said.
The cautious approach in oversight of autonomous technology in ocean operations mirrors the deliberate steps safety regulators have taken in regulating drones and robotic cars and trucks.
The Federal Aviation Administration has said it may take years to craft rules including identification standards and other operating specifications for unmanned aircraft, although the agency has approved some limited operations. The FAA in April gave Wing Aviation, a unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc., the green light to operate a fleet of drones for consumer-goods deliveries in rural Virginia.
Regulation of self-driving automobiles and trucks has moved more cautiously, meantime, while road tests of the vehicles have gone forward under the oversight of state and local governments.
The maritime process is starting with an IMO working group chaired by Henrik Tunfors, a senior adviser at the Swedish Transport agency. The group will report its findings sometime next year to IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee for further consideration by IMO member nations, and it could take about 10 years before rules are adopted.
“It’s a top priority, but we don’t have a horizon yet,” Mr. Tunfors said. “The pessimistic scenario is that regulation will fall in place between 2028 and 2032, but if we start working straight away, we may have some regulations by 2024. But that’s very optimistic. The IMO is a slow-moving organization.”
The working group must agree on how land-based operators of autonomous vessels will be certified and define four levels of progressive automation, according to Mr. Lim.
Two Norwegian companies say they are close to putting the world’s first battery-powered, crewless ship into commercial service.
Yara Birkeland AS, a subsidiary of agriculture firm Yara International AS A, and Kongsberg Gruppen AS A, which builds guidance systems for civilian and military uses, are jointly developing a 120-container ship they say will be able to operate in Norway’s waters late next year, although initially it will be tested with a human at the controls.
The vessel will cost $20 million, about three times as much as a conventional container ship of its size, but its developers say it will cut operating costs by up to 90%.
Autonomous ships that do short trips on national waters will only need approval by local regulators.
“It will use the energy of two trucks and will replace 120 trucks. We are removing 40,000 truck journeys every year,” said Bjørn Tore Orvik, Yara Birkeland’s chief executive. “Trade is increasing, the technology is advancing fast, and in a few years I believe we will have trans-Atlantic trips with such ships.”
The Nippon Foundation in Japan plans to increase its investment in seaborne robotic technology to $9 billion a year by 2040, according to Masanori Yoshida, its head of offshore development, and expects the first autonomous ships with its support to hit the water in the next couple of years.
“Japan is an aging society with a decreasing population. We will be facing an acute shortage of seafarers,” Mr. Yoshida said. “So all of us in Japan need to change drastically the way we think about shipping and logistics, and one key solution is unmanned vessels.”