Autonomous ships, regulatory improvements discussed in IMO Maritime Safety Committee’s latest session


During May 5 to 14, the IMO Maritime Safety Committee held its 103rd session.

Due to the pandemic, the IMO’s deliberations have been somewhat disrupted and no new work outputs are currently taken onboard.

Three hours’ worth of on-line deliberations per day is far less time than normally allocated for the committee. Much of the discussion revolved around autonomous ships, where ferry operations are highly relevant both as technical platforms for testing and with a view to complement current safety systems with more advanced automated collision and grounding avoidance systems.

As is well known, the IMO takes its time when it comes to developing new international requirements and the development of autonomous ships technologies is well ahead of the regulatory process. This is all in good order, but it should be recognised that companies wishing to proceed with autonomous solutions will rely heavily on guidance from interested flag states and classification societies.

From a ferry perspective, the most important item discussed by MSC103 was the development of a new instrument for domestic ferry safety, an area which Interferry has been heavily engaged over the years.

Thanks to a strong initiative by China, supported by many other countries, some of which also afflicted by poor domestic ferry safety, the IMO is developing so-called Model Regulations for Domestic Ferry Safety, which may serve as a non-mandatory for countries wishing to upgrade their current set of requirements, enforcement tools and governance.

There is apprehension amongst some prominent member states, as they are concerned that the IMO is moving in on domestic sovereignty, an argument which Interferry cannot fully understand, as the IMO does not have the power to regulate anything. This is an attempt to provide support to countries that have fallen behind, which has nothing to do with countries who have already got their house in order.

More than 95 per cent of ferry casualties worldwide occur on domestic operations in countries that do not directly, or indirectly, follow SOLAS and ISM, and helping countries move towards the high international requirements should be at the very top of IMO’s agenda.

Johan Roos

Johan Roos is Director of Regulatory Affairs for worldwide ferry industry association Interferry.