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Smart Ship Regulation

James Fanshawe, Chairman of the MASRWG describes the latest developments of rules within which smart ships can operate is becoming essential as the use of small scale surface vessels is becoming more prevalent and the debate around the use of much larger smart ships gathers pace. Article first published in The Naval Architect, September 2015


The use of Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS) is developing at a fast pace and this will continue to grow as technology and research opens up new opportunities.

Current MAS operations have highlighted important opportunities in the maritime world, specifically for Marine Scientific Research, Hydrography and Oceanography. There are significant benefits for Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) in the Oil and Gas Industry, who are already deploying large numbers of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs).

In addition, they present important new capabilities for Defence and other National Security agencies as Admiral Sir George Zambellas, the First Sea Lord, has made clear. Most importantly, the development of MAS offers significant economic opportunities for the international maritime industry, specifically in the UK.

But this new type of vessel raises some important questions which need to be addressed. MAS are understood to include any type of unmanned vessel or craft, but their range is increasing all the time. Some may be relatively small and slow, but the future tells a different story as demonstrated by the EU MUNIN (Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks) project.

As things stand, MAS are operated under existing Conventions, Regulations and Legislation, using agreed and recognised procedures to ensure safety at sea. In the UK, these include Notices to Mariners, Kingfisher Fortnightly Bulletins and MMO Exempt Activity Forms, amongst others.


The UK Marine Industries Alliance Steering Group has recognised the opportunity to capitalise on the potential growth of MAS.  One of the key challenges to this growth is the development of a regulatory framework to support the safe operation of Maritime Autonomous Systems in all of the global designated maritime zones, from the high seas through to internal waters.

In May 2014, the UK Marine Industries Leadership Council (MILC) endorsed the formation of a regulatory working group (MASRWG) to focus on the regulation of USVs and UUVs (when at or near the surface) and the MASRWG was established in August 2014.  The inaugural MASRWG meeting was held on 16 September 2014. 

The intention of this group is to formulate a regulatory framework and a code of practice, with associated recommendations which will include risk assessments. The aim is to provide documents which can be adopted by the UK and other States, as well as the International bodies charged with the responsibility to regulate the marine and maritime world ­ specifically the IMO.

The UK MASRWG currently has over 30 members from a broad cross-section of organisations and companies encompassing Government, NGOs, Industry and Academia.

There are three sub-groups working within the UK MASRWG. These are looking at the legal aspects, the opportunities for ‘equivalence’, and the requirements for training, standards and accreditation.

Whilst the foci of the first and last sub-groups are fairly self-evident, the concept of ‘equivalence’ may be less well understood. This group is considering how MAS can integrate within the following areas:

  • The IMO COLREGS (International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972)
  • Issues of ownership, registration and insurance
  • Structural integrity with a view to developing a set of classification rules
  • Requirements for additional training, accreditation and certification.

Output from the UK MASRWG

The working group’s main output will be in the form of a draft best practice regulatory framework which will be submitted to the MCA as part of the Open Policy Approach. This regulatory framework will cover the following key aspects:

  • Safety
  • Environmental compliance
  • Compliance with UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982)
  • Compliance with other key maritime and marine conventions where identified.

The following outputs have already been produced by the UK MASRWG:

  • Submission of an Information (INF) paper to the IMO Maritime Safety Committee 95th Session (MSC 95) 10-11 June 2015, to raise awareness of MAS and the UK’s work on a regulatory framework. The paper was submitted to the IMO via the MCA as the appointed UK Maritime Organisation
  • MIA’s Maritime Autonomous Systems (Surface) MAS(S) Code of Practice Issue 1, to be developed and regularly updated to provide best practice to a responsible industry

A further more detailed paper will be submitted to the IMO Safety Committee 96th Session (MSC 96) in June 2016.

Further details of the UK MAS Regulatory Working Group can be found at:

International Regulatory Conference ­ October 2015

The MSRWG is arranging an International MAS Regulatory Conference at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton on 14-15 October 2015. Although this event is by invitation only, expressions of interest can be made by registering at the conference website:

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