Blog: British technology, innovation, thought-leadership and regulatory know-how creating future of maritime autonomy

2017 has been the year of debate and prophecy on autonomy. We’ve heard all about driverless cars and drones that will deliver parcels to our homes in a matter of minutes, revolutionising the way we go about our lives. The maritime sector has not been exempt from this exciting debate.

At shipping weeks and maritime conferences across the world, panellists have offered their thoughts and predictions on what automation means for maritime.

Many have predicted that maritime activity over the next decade will be dominated by unmanned surface and underwater vessels.

What isn’t a prediction, however, is the belief that the UK will be the leader in vessel autonomy. It’s not a prediction – we already are.

Across technology, innovation, thought-leadership and regulatory know-how, the UK is at the forefront.

British companies like ASV Global and AutoNaut lead the world in the design and manufacture of autonomous vessels, and Rolls Royce leads the pack in developing remotely operated shipping.

Just this year, the UK's first testing service for autonomous maritime systems was announced. The Solent-based service will provide space to conduct trials and test cutting-edge systems, while being anchored at the heart of a world-class cluster of academic and industry collaboration.

While commentators may disagree on how autonomy will develop and what it will mean for maritime, everyone is in agreement on one crucial point: existing global regulatory systems are well behind the curve and need to adapt. 

Here, again, the UK is leading the way.

On Thursday, at a Southampton showcase of maritime autonomy, the UK launches an Industry Code of Practice for the design, construction and operation of autonomous maritime systems.

This Industry Code of Practice seeks to provide practical guidance for the design, construction and safe operation of autonomous and semi-autonomous vessels under 24 metres long, which will provide guidelines while the more detailed regulatory framework for autonomous systems is developed.

The Code will be updated as required when guidance from the IMO Regulatory Scoping Exercise is published, and as the MCA develops policies to meet the needs of forthcoming technological, commercial and regulatory demands.

It is UK thought-leadership that is driving forward advances in technological advances and regulation. Indeed, it was the UK that led the way in calling for the IMO to launch the scoping exercise.

UK companies have already begun outlining some of the future developments and challenges that autonomy may pose. During London International Shipping Week this year, Lloyd’s Register, QinetiQ and the University of Southampton launched a new insight report into marine autonomy, which considers employment, skills and the socio-economic impacts of these systems.

The report argues that:

  • It will be challenging for regulatory and legal systems to adapt,
  • Consumer-driven technological developments will drive the pace of change,
  • Seafarers will be required to change their skillsets.

The new Industry Code of Practice is designed to set initial standards and best practice for all those involved with the development and operation of autonomous systems. The Code will shape new regulation as it develops.

David Dingle CBE, Chairman of Maritime UK said: 

“I’m delighted that this timely and comprehensive Code of Practice has been developed by industry, demonstrating the UK’s pre-eminent role in leading regulatory developments that benefit our global sector. This, added with our cutting-edge innovation and thought leadership, mean that the UK really is the world’s maritime centre.”

The Maritime Sector Deal that is being developed by industry as part of the government’s Industrial Strategy will include a significant focus on autonomy, in order to capitalise upon both the UK’s advantage within autonomy and new opportunities on the horizon.

The UK International Marine Autonomous Systems Regulatory Conference 2017 is being held in Southampton on 16th and 17th November.