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Autonomous Shipping

Autonomous shipping technology is developing faster than the regulations to manage the interaction between autonomous vessels and traditionally crewed vessels.  Although the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine (CCNR) have both launched activities to review the regulatory regime for their specific sectors, there is a need for urgency in order to keep up with developments in the industry that are already taking place. Projects have already been launched to make the concept a reality.

The European Boating Association (EBA) is monitoring the developing technology and the emergence of ships operating with varying degrees of autonomy closely, to ensure that there is no detrimental impact on safety of navigation for Recreational Boating.

The International Regulations for the Preventing Collisions at Sea place obligations on the conduct of vessels in any condition of visibility, conduct of vessels in sight of one another by day and by night and conduct of vessels in restricted visibility. CEVNI, the European Code for Inland Waterways contains the rules of the road applicable to the traffic on inland waterways in the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) region. CEVNI constitutes the legal and technical basis for national inland waterway codes in UNECE member States.

As technology develops and vessels are capable of operating with less reliance on the human element, careful consideration needs to be given to how such vessels can integrate safely with existing, traditionally manned vessels of all sizes.

More and more vessels are being trialled, testing various degrees of autonomy, but as such operations scale up, steps need to be taken to ensure that they can share the waters they operate on safely. However, it is a fact that the vast majority of vessels will still have crew on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions including their navigation.

As detailed in the EBA’s position statements on tourism, recreational boating and cruising boat tourism are important elements of the EU economy. In order to increase the contribution these activities make, efforts should be made to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and expense. It is therefore important that in legislating to accommodate vessels which are not manned in the manner required by existing legislation, burdens are not transferred to existing users (in particular recreational boats).

Autonomous shipping should be required to adapt to the current environment rather than have the environment adapt to make it possible for autonomous craft to operate.

The EBA strongly supports the fundamental principle underpinning the current steering and sailing rules set out in COLREG and CEVNI in which a vessel’s rights and responsibilities are determined by the characteristics of the vessel rather than the manner in which it is crewed. The EBA believes that this fundamental principle should apply to autonomous vessels as much as it applies to fully crewed vessels.

The EBA will resist the ‘risk’ of vessels being operated autonomously being transferred to recreational boat users and with that, any requirement for recreational craft to be equipped to facilitate detection by autonomous ships.

The EBA believes that each regulation or rule should be analysed for every different degree of autonomy, so as to determine the best approach to address autonomous shipping operations.

The EBA believes that autonomous shipping trials should be conducted in a manner that provides at least the same degree of safety, security and protection of the environment as provided by the existing instruments and regulations.