back to article International Maritime Organisation turns salty gaze on regulating robotic shipping

The International Maritime Organisation has woken up to the notion of robot boats – and is now pondering whether to regulate them. Unmanned shipping, as a concept, has been around for a good few years. Rolls-Royce, makers of engines for aircraft and watercraft alike for many decades, even published a marketing paper about …

  1. bazza Silver badge

    It'll Never Happen

    Given how busy merchant crews are doing routine maintenance to keep their ship in insurable good order, and how little time ships spend in ports, one wonders just how "crewless" a robot ship would actually be. They already navigate themselves across the big blue sea, so in theatre sense they're already "crewless". But until someone comes up with a robot that'll strip and rebuild a diesel generator, put out a container fire and wield a chipping hammer, there'll still be people on board.

    It's a similar aspiration to Tesla's / Musk's failed dream of fully automated Model 3 manufacturing. It won't work.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: It'll Never Happen

      For older ships that need lots of maintenance - no. But then again you aren't going to retrofit them with robots.

      For modern mega containerships and tankers, they already have the crew at bare minimum and it's mostly to check on the cargo. They already have all the auto aids to reduce crew so no real saving in cutting 10 people.

      The real win for robot ships is small boats doing routine tasks that need lots of crew crew to cover 24x7 shifts. Harbour tugs, survey boats, cable laying, crew transfer, crane barges - anything with short range and relatively low trip lengths.

      Then there are tasks that you can't have a simple bouy because you can't anchor it, but a manned ship would need a large enough crew to have 3 watches + accomodation + food + water + power + lifeboats, making a simple Arduino app suddenly a 300ton vessel.

      1. SkippyBing Silver badge

        Re: It'll Never Happen

        'The real win for robot ships is small boats doing routine tasks that need lots of crew crew to cover 24x7 shifts. Harbour tugs, survey boats, cable laying, crew transfer, crane barges - anything with short range and relatively low trip lengths.'

        True, but most of those would be in territorial waters, which aren't regulated by the IMO. Which makes me think this is an attempt by them to produce an international standard that'll become de-facto rather than having to deal with multiple national standards that they then have to hammer into a universal one.

      2. Aqua Marina

        Re: It'll Never Happen

        “For modern mega containerships and tankers, they already have the crew at bare minimum and it's mostly to check on the cargo.“

        Suggest you watch the documentary about Emma Maersk. It was brand new yet something was and still is always breaking down almost daily. The maintenance crews are constantly needed.

      3. Kernel

        Re: It'll Never Happen

        "They already have all the auto aids to reduce crew so no real saving in cutting 10 people."

        There is if it's watch keeping officers you're cutting, just leaving a team manager and a few semi-skilled labourers on board.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It'll Never Happen

      It will happen but probably incrementally and a long long time before the crew are downsized to a maintenance team.

      A first step would be a 7X24 watchkeeping system that initially supplements then later replaces this function.

      1. Tom Paine Silver badge

        Re: It'll Never Happen

        I'm totally ignorant of seafaring as will become obvious after the next full stop. But isn't it important to keep a vessel from going sideways to the direction the waves are coming from, to stop it capsizing? As wave direction isn't necessarily going to correlate with wind direction (and it presumably pretty chaotic at some level) doesn't automating that imply either a ship so fucking massive it makes no difference which direction the waves are going, or an analogue of the radar-scanning gear on supposedly autonomous cars that senses the movement of surrounding traffic and reacts accordingly?

        I'll be fascinated to see if an autonomous container ship can make it from, say, Australia to Europe, but as with the cars, you wouldn't get me on one for all the tea in China until we have a decade of real world actuarial stats.

      2. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: It'll Never Happen

        "A first step would be a 7X24 watchkeeping system that initially supplements then later replaces this function."

        This should be mandatory on all ships anyway. It's clear from the number of collisions of heavy shipping with yachts, whales and other small vessels that human failings need major augmentation to improve safety.

  2. hititzombisi

    Time to re-read Brian Aldiss' Earthworks...

    He foresaw all of this and worse...

    1. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

      Re: Time to re-read Brian Aldiss' Earthworks...

      I did just that fairly recently, but his autonomous ships were not uncrewed - I'm thinking "Earthworks" here, which I'm guessing you also remembered. The crews in that book were just one or two persons plus a few assorted passengers.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Today the IMO's Maritime Safety Committee – the greybeards who regulate the high seas"

    ... is a greybreard and older version of Blackbeard?

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge
      Pirate

      ... is a greybreard and older version of Blackbeard?

      As far as shipping is concerned, I prefer Yellowbeards.

  4. Chris G Silver badge

    Tortuga bound

    What kind of anti piracy kit are they considering?

    If I were of a piratical nature I would view an autonomous ship as something of a gift.

    Pirate recognition software may be useful, connected to some 'Smart' firepower, although a 'Smart' pirate might like to figure out a way of hacking into the ships software to get everything in his favour.

    1. Tikimon Silver badge
      Angel

      Re: Tortuga bound

      I suspect an autonomous ship would not be a viable target for pirates. With no humans aboard, the pirates have no hostages to threaten to force compliance with their demands. Bury the brains of the ship where they're not easily reached without a cutting torch and a few hours. I find it hard to believe random Somalis could disconnect the steering gear (bypassing the computer) without totally losing directional control of the vessel. Pirate-removal services (lol) can board with weapons free. There are no crewmen hostages to hide behind, no threat to offer to keep the Good Guys away. The pirates' only option would be to fight the professional military coming aboard to kill them, and good luck with that.

      Heck, robot ships might END piracy.

      1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

        Re: Tortuga bound

        Whilst there’s no crew to take hostage, there’s a big ship to loot (i.e. cargo!) with no-one getting in your way.

        1. Vulch

          Re: Tortuga bound

          A big ship that's carrying on on its way with not the slightest interest in your desire for it to follow you into port. You're going to have to try and get your loot off something that is underway and making frequent random course changes because its unauthorised boarding detectors have gone off.

          1. imanidiot Silver badge

            Re: Tortuga bound

            stopping an autonomous ship is probably not hard. Just box it in at the bow with 2 reasonably sized vessels and it'll have to slow down or stop for safety reasons.Once it's adrift it's relatively easy to board and loot.

            1. Roland6 Silver badge

              Re: Tortuga bound

              >stopping an autonomous ship is probably not hard.

              Just press the big red emergency engine cut off button?

              Can't see these ships having zero local manual override: ship's computer believes the charts are 100% accurate and so tries to steer the ship straight-through a sandbank that the last tide moved...

              1. Stoneshop Silver badge

                Re: Tortuga bound

                tries to steer the ship straight-through a sandbank that the last tide moved...

                Moving sandbanks don't often appear outside of coastal waters. Which means a ship in a moving-sandbank-prone area is probably close to (a) port, and if there indeed are moving sandbanks about, be guided by a pilot vessel. With the pilot vessel having the most recent depth charts, and obviously knowing the draught of the ship being piloted. Plus, both will have depth ranging sonar.

            2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

              Re: Tortuga bound

              Once it's adrift it's relatively easy to board and loot

              You just need a way of offloading 20,000 TEU of containers into your Zodiac and landing them in Somalia or transferring 100K m^3 of natural gas in mid-ocean

              Most piracy is to rob the crew + petty cash, or to take rich tourists hostage, nobody is robbing a bulk ore carrier for the cargo

            3. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Tortuga bound

              "Just box it in at the bow with 2 reasonably sized vessels and it'll have to slow down or stop for safety reasons"

              Just like an autonomous car, safety requires a 'run them over' mode, in this case invoked by satellite link.

            4. Alan Brown Silver badge

              Re: Tortuga bound

              "Just box it in at the bow with 2 reasonably sized vessels and it'll have to slow down or stop for safety reasons."

              Where are the pirates going to get those from?

              1. Roland6 Silver badge

                Re: Tortuga bound

                >Where are the pirates going to get those from?

                Well given all the safety considerations, would not be surprised if all that will be needed is to rig up the maritime equivalent of a red traffic light or a "roadworks" diversion sign...

        2. Voland's right hand Silver badge

          Re: Tortuga bound

          Whilst there’s no crew to take hostage, there’s a big ship to loot (i.e. cargo!) with no-one getting in your way.

          And where you are going to offload the loot I may ask? Into the fisherman boat they used to get to the ship? Yeah... Right...

          So as far as Somali pirates are concerned a robotic ship is a totally useless target.

          Now, network pirates... That is a different story. A robotic ship or any sort of tampering with ship navigation (including the ones crewed by meatsacks) has the potential of damages where twin towers pale by comparison. mv2 is a bitch. Even if the values of v are rather low (compared to an airliner), the m compensates for that with gusto.

          1. Chris G Silver badge

            Re: Tortuga bound

            I wasn't really thinking of a bunch of Somalis getting on board and pilfering stuff out of a couple of containers, although that could be rewarding enough for them.

            I was thinking more of hacking into the navigation to divert a ship somewhere to either hold the entire ship to ransom or unload the whole thing in a dodgy port/beach. Or even dropping a few containers overboard, a lot of them float ( ask my mate who lost a third of his yacht hull after hitting a container at about 8 knots) then tow them to a beach. After all container ships have their own cranes.

            If I can think of a couple of ideas off the top of my head I am sure someone who wants to take it seriously could figure a way of monetising someone else's ship.

            1. Stoneshop Silver badge
              Mushroom

              Re: Tortuga bound

              After all container ships have their own cranes.

              Eh, only few of them do.

              But getting containers overboard isn't that hard a job. A simple matter of a few well-placed explosives.

        3. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

          Re: Tortuga bound

          Whilst there’s no crew to take hostage, there’s a big ship to loot (i.e. cargo!) with no-one getting in your way.

          Not quite. The disadvantage of humans is that they are easily recognised, need a lot of armour to remain safe and may accidentally run into any anti-pirate booby traps themselves. Robots can take any shape, form and position, so with no humans around you could get quite creative with countermeasures.

          Until someone invents robot pirates.

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: Tortuga bound

            "with no humans around you could get quite creative with countermeasures."

            I can think of a couple off the top of my head which would be totally passive, but quite effective - and as a bonus they'd do a pretty good number on the population of ship rodents.

            1. Roland6 Silver badge

              Re: Tortuga bound

              >and as a bonus they'd do a pretty good number on the population of ship rodents.

              Speaking out of ignorance here, so those who know feel free to correct - not that El Reg readers need an invitation :)

              Will they also good a pretty good number on the ship's roach population, or can we expect malfunction due to a roach getting into a switchbox and shorting something out?

      2. Suricou Raven

        Re: Tortuga bound

        A pirate doesn't need to control the ship, just stop it long enough for their looting team to take the cargo and run before authorities get their own ship in the area. I can see many ways to do that:

        - Stop your boat just in front of the ship so the collision avoidance kicks in.

        - Locate the emergency stop button.

        - Apply sledgehammer to anything important-looking in the engine room.

        - Apply regular hammer to just the right place in the engine room.

        The latter two methods may require use of an angle grinder or cutting torch to gain access to something sufficiently critical. Engine ideally, but failing that any anxiliary system relating to engine electrical power, navigation, cooling, lubrication, etc.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Tortuga bound

          "Locate the emergency stop button."

          I presume you mean the emergency control keypad for the control system over-ride code?

          As for your other suggestions you seem to completely ignoring the probably installation of active defences, several of which have occurred to me in the past few minutes.

          Without crew to worry about, there are a lot of interesting options.

          1. Roland6 Silver badge

            Re: Tortuga bound

            >I presume you mean the emergency control keypad for the control system over-ride code?

            Err no, if the ship is on fire there will need to be an accessible manual override - can't run the risk of a burning ship continuing on its voyage. Yes, I know theoretically technology is fire and bomb-proof and with the magical 'AI' in control, all eventualities will be covered, but we're talking about the realworld...

            However, if the ship is powered by Uber AV, then you're probably right, as they will have omitted such functionality (including the fire detection functionality) and insist on sailing the ship into it's intended destination port...

            >you seem to completely ignoring the probably installation of active defences, several of which have occurred to me in the past few minutes.

            But do remember they will have to survive at sea for months/years with minimal (or zero) maintenance...

    2. Ben Bonsall

      Re: Tortuga bound

      "Just box it in at the bow with 2 reasonably sized vessels and it'll have to slow down or stop for safety reasons"

      A big containership or bulk carrier can take an hour or so to slow down*... don't park too close in front.

      An hours warning for the ship's owners to know that something is deliberately slowing the ship. Given that pirates will probably be closish to shore, that's probably enough time to scramble a couple of planes loaded with parachute and gun toting security personnel.

      *I learned this from Ship Simulator, may not be accurate :)

  5. David Leigh 1

    ColRegs

    The International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea contain a provision for all ships to keep a good lookout at all times. This has been a bone of contention regarding solo sailors (yachtsmen, obviously) who cannot comply with this part of the Regs. Unmanned autonomous ships are a much larger (literally!) kettle of fish, as they also cannot comply.

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Re: ColRegs

      Depends on your definition of lookout.

      A radar system can easily run 24 hours a day.

      Won't pick up a RIB, but a container ship crew isn't going to notice one of those splashing under the bow anyway.

      There's a reason yachts put up a reflector.

      1. SkippyBing Silver badge

        Re: ColRegs

        'A radar system can easily run 24 hours a day.'

        Rule 7c- '...assumptions shall not be made on the basis of scanty information, especially scanty radar information'

        Although as it's the IMO that writes the rules, I'd suggest it's things like this that they're reviewing to remove the legal technicalities that are a road bloke to sea going terminators.

        1. Stoneshop Silver badge
          Headmaster

          Re: ColRegs

          a road bloke

          What's he doing at sea, if I may ask?

    2. Mage Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: ColRegs

      However a far more realistic problem to solve than the fantasy of Self Driving Cars.

      Though maintenance of ship and cargo is already the main human input rather than "driving".

      Mobile robots with video (like Mars rovers) and a few remote waldo "robots" for maintenance, a shore facility doing monitoring of many ships. Satellite links.

      I think achievable and regular readers know what I think of so called AI and Self Driving Cars!

  6. Chozo
    Devil

    Kill The Gibson

    The IMO is responsible for monitoring ballast water discharge quality. Now with several nations dragging their anchors over the issue and some of those claiming to be compliant having poor record keeping then mandating tamper-proof remote sensing could be on the horizon. Perhaps even remote control of the ships entire ballast system...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Kill The Gibson

      If that is, I can only applaud it. Can we have it now.

      A good example of the effect of uncontrolled ballast dumping is the death of the Black Sea ecosystem from algae and snails brought with ballast water from Vietnam.

      The ecosystem was already mortally wounded by the wonderful anti-Russian submarine nets installed with NATO subsidies across the Bosphorus by Turkey which had hole size of under 5x5cm (definitely for a "russian submarine"). So the "immigrants" brought during the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1980 in ballast water killed it in less than a decade after that. The first blooms were in the bay where the ships carrying "toys and soap" to friendly Vietnam anchored before their turn to load (and dumped ballast) - in Gypsy Bay south of Burgas in 1980. By 1987 the blooms were across the entire coast and by 1988 fish, algae, everything began to die.

      The blooms were so thick that the Russian Comet hydrofoil transports had to be taken out of service - their cooling was clogged by the algae causing engine failures. Gigantic grey blotches across the sea bed. Death and destruction everywhere. By mid-1990-es there were only a couple of places across the entire coastline where the ecosystem was still intact and they got whacked by the 2000-ish as well.

      It is not the only place where this happened (though probably the most drastic). Chinese burrow crabs in England, toxic blooms in the Western Mediterranean, etc.

      So if IMA will put (and enforce) control over ballast dumping I am all for that.

  7. John Crisp

    Last of the dinosaurs

    Certainly feel one when I think of my sextant training...

    My guess is they'll look at deep sea stuff first, and make changes to the Collision Regs to accomodate.

    Most crews do little maintenance between dry dock these days compared to years back. Bit like modern cars. So no issues there.

    On oceanic trips eg across the bottom of the Pacific, there's not a lot to hit barring the odd berg and albatross. So days of paid crew effectively doing bugger all.

    Automate it for several thousand boring miles, get it close enough to land and drop a few crew + pilot to bring her in and job done.

    Short sea gets trickier with the volume of traffic. It would be much easier if everyone actually knew the Collision Regs and followed them, but there is no accounting for the stupidity of yachets/ribs, and supposedly trained navigators on ships who clearly don't even know where they are....

    Somewhere in the English Channel....

    "Ship on my starboard side"

    "Yup"

    "Do you know your position"

    "Yup"

    "Can you tell me my position?"

    "Lost?"

    Occasions to numerous to mention...

    And don't ask me about stories from my days in the RNLI..... seeing the worst of the Romford Navy.

    I'd put my sextant box and Nories in my sou'wester but they won't fit

    1. simon maasz

      Re: Last of the dinosaurs

      Somewhere in the S China sea in 1980 7 shell gas tankers had the very first commercial sat nav to safely carry a dangerous cargo down a narrow strait near Palawan island. Much of the watch was giving out positions to other ships who had discovered the shell tankers actually did know where they were....... I'd love to see unmanned ships trying to get into Singapore Roads! LOL

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    more colregs

    "this looks like potentially disapplying the parts of the international Safety Of Life At Sea (SOLAS) conventions which require all ocean-going ships to carry human-usable navigational equipment and lifesaving gear such as lifeboats and lifejackets. If you have no humans aboard then you don't need any of this expensive gear, right?"

    Doesn't matter how many people you have on board, you still have an obligation to assist other vessels in distress who do have people on board, so lifesaving gear is definitely needed, together with a system for deploying it. As to who navigates after resued souls are on board, I suppose that's anybody's guess.

    1. Jon 37

      Re: more colregs

      Why is there an obligation to assist other vessels in distress? Because at the time the rules were written, and until very recently, all ships had the *ability* to assist other vessels in distress, and if you *can* save a life then you should.

      That doesn't necessarily apply to robotic ships. If they don't have the ability to deploy lifesaving gear, and don't have anyone onboard who would need it, then it would be reasonable to say they don't have to.

      In other words: The obligation is to do the best you can with the equipment you have on board, not to bring extra equipment to help others. The lifesaving gear that ships carry is intended to save their own passengers and crew, the ability to help others is just a bonus.

      Of course if your robotic ship happens to sail past someone who's in trouble, and you detect that with your cameras or by a radio call or satellite message, then you have to provide what assistance you can. Likely a human would take over at that point, and drive the ship by remote control from their control centre back on land. Assistance might be limited to sailing over to the casualties, letting them get on the deck, then heading for the nearest port or manned ship at the best possible speed. The robotic ship might not have any cabins, shelter, food or drink, so getting to port or a manned ship quickly may be the best that it can do.

    2. Lusty Silver badge

      Re: more colregs

      I was thinking this too, if the ships start to remove crew someone will need to pony up for rescue services in remote places like mid ocean. For at least a while, probably a few decades, other shipping would need these emergency services as well as the obvious leisure sailing and racing. If a cruise ship hits issues mid-Atlantic this could have very serious consequences. Until you're actually part of this picture it's easy to assume "they'll send a helicopter", but distance is such a big issue that right now shipping is the only emergency service able to respond other than naval vessels. This could change an awful lot of things for the worse, and all to save what must be pennies against the cost of ships and fuel.

      Perhaps it would be a better solution for the IMO to start paying for the humans on board and tax any vessel carrying humans?

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    how about ability to render assistance to human ships in distress?

    the thing is, if you allow me to speak as a former navy person,

    and someone who grew up on freighters as son to a sailor.

    The solas gear is not just for the own crew!

    It is quite common to be rescued by other ships in the shipping lane.

    Now if you fire your flares, or radio on channel 16 with your tiny hand held radio

    in that float/rescue island and the robots ignore you and steam on instead of picking you out of the sea, if theyre unable to render assistance to nearby ship in need, because theyre not capable of manuvering close to humans in the water and towing a wreck... theyre not cabable of dropping own lifecraftboats because they dont have those anymore....

    ----------

    then that would be quite a gruesome scenario to be on the brink of death - despite you could have been

    rescued if that pesky freighter had been a human, able to respond to a flare,

    a radio and take action as it is custom and law in international maritime laws.

    -----

    i guess robot ships will come anyhow, and i am fairly certain these robots will cost us lifes.

    -----

    Maritime havaries, and ships sinking happenes every year ... you dont hear about it, but its what it is.

    Its not an uncommon happening. And the more stupid bots crawl the see the less likely it becomes of the remaining humans to receive assistance when needed.

    -----

    Hail the god of greed and money, for he could save on a few more salaries after already

    evading tax in panama.

    73, OH8XAT

    ex-radio operator german navy

    IT-Worker

  10. John Jennings

    Problem with fiddling with solas/colregs

    It would be crazy to drop parts of colregs-such as lookout because it would also be dropped for crewed. Crewed ships have radar too.... but still need to have a lookout. If we dropped it for uncrewed ships, haulage companies would use the same argu ment for reducing bridge crew for regular ships.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Headmaster

    To be assistive to humans is best

    in US unscrupulous operators ran steel mills under-crewed forcing a single person to repair a conveyor belt with out turning it off calamity often occurred. There were many one armed men in that town and many others across the US.

    As mentioned for the maintenance of shipping a certain number of crew are required to achieve any task safely, same for a machine, it would take a massive reoganisation of a ship and how it operates to robotise the whole process.

    Robots and AI will be best if they are ASSISTIVE and help humans do what they do.

    The old idea of who will fix the auto-repair system is always valid.

  12. David Roberts Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Chain of logic?

    Design a robot ship!

    But pirates....

    Add robot defences and shoot any attackers!

    And there you have it. An autonomous fully armed ship designed to repel and kill any unauthorised humans. What could possibly go wrong?

  13. Asterix the Gaul

    All that ship owners care about is money.

    'Flags of convenience' killed of the Merchant Navy, making the 'Red Duster' history.

    Back in the early- late 60's, I did my time in the North Atlantic, the Arctic Ocean, North Sea & English Channel.

    The last of which, apart from one storm in '68, whilst serving on Light-vessels as a Lights-man 1st Class, we dragged anchor for one mile, led to the vessel becoming off-station & issued the relevant 'Notice to Mariners.

    Trinity House, my then employer, in existence since Henry 8, is funded by ''Light Dues', paid by ship owners using UK ports, which funds all Lighthouses & Light-vessels(now redundant).

    Pilots are self-employed.

    The ship owners always resent paying their 'dues', which led to 'automation' of light stations around the coast.

    I am long retired, possibly the last of any Light-vessel crew alive, our duties were primarily the safety of mariners at sea, an honourable tradition, of which I am proud to have served my part in the provision of.

    The interest of ship owners stands in sharp contrast to everyone else in the marine environment & governments operate too closely with the interest of the ship owners as opposed to other mariners.

    With the automation of Light-vessels, it was only to be expected that the navigation & propulsion of sea going ships would follow the path of automation.

    I wonder how long before the loading\unloading of container ships will be fully automated in ports?

    'Capitalism' is blind, it knows the price of everything, the value of nothing.

  14. Spanners Silver badge
    Boffin

    Salvage?

    I am sure that, during my childhood reading, I heard that vessels where all the crew has left can be salvaged. There is stuff about insurance, territorial waters, ports of registration and so on but these rules were made before there were drones. I suspect that they were mde before ships had propellers.

    If you send your "unmanned boat" off into international waters, and you will get an email from your insurers saying that you need to pay this salvage company a nice sum of money and your stuff will come back.

    This is not a ransom. It is custom and practice dating back centuries. It hasn't happened with aircraft drones because they are hard to get on whilst travelling...

  15. Tom Paine Silver badge

    Kenton will be gutted

    ...or it could be a great excuse for a rum promotion night at The Bull!

    /* you are not expected to understand this */

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