The Modern MASS-T Head: The Rise and Reality of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships

Baker Donelson

Baker Donelson

Of modern standers-of-mast-heads we have but a lifeless set; mere stone, iron, and bronze men; who, though well capable of facing out a stiff gale, are still entirely incompetent to the business of singing out upon discovering any strange sight.


While driverless terrestrial vehicles have been a hot topic in the media (including on Baker Donelson’s Autonomous Vehicle Law blog) – from Tesla autopilot crashes to self-driving freight trucks – there has been an equally (if not more) anticipated and analyzed trend (some would say nascent revolution) in the less popularly publicized international maritime vessel operations: the rise of autonomous vessel technologies on the world’s oceans, rivers, and harbors. The term of art for these autonomous vessels – “maritime autonomous surface ships,” “MASS” for short – is ironically cognate with the very vessel “MASters” that autonomous technology would stand to replace.

The initial forays into the possibilities of autonomous vessel technologies began (more or less) with Rolls-Royce just into the second decade of the 2000s. Since then the concept has been put to numerous actual proofs by Rolls-Royce and others, and it is safe to say that it is now not a matter of if or even when MASS technology enters the market, but rather the extent to which MASS technology will disrupt traditional global shipping and vessel operations. And while the technical advances have been steadily developing in the hands of engineers, regulators have been attempting to keep pace with the legal ramifications of MASS.


To this end, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the maritime regulatory arm of the United Nations, commenced a regulatory “scoping” exercise in Fall 2017 in an effort to take stock of how automated vessel technologies and MASS would fit into the current scheme of international conventions governing shipping and vessels. The United States Coast Guard has represented the interests of the United States shipping and vessel industries through its IMO Legal Committee, which has been participating in the scoping exercise from the outset. Likewise, the Comite Maritime International (CMI) – the international non-governmental coordinating body for the national maritime law associations of 56 different nations – has had a dedicated working group for the legal implications of “unmanned vessels” since 2017, and has (directly and through its national membership) also been heavily involved with the IMO’s scoping efforts.

This first fruits of this exercise came after the 99th meeting of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in May of 2018, which established four non-hierarchical categories of MASS under the IMO’s general definition of MASS as any “ship which, to a varying degree [viz. the four categories] can operate independently of human interaction.”:

  1. Ship with automated processes and decision support: Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Some operations may be automated.
  2. Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location, but seafarers are on board.
  3. Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. There are no seafarers on board.
  4. Fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

The IMO initially conducted methodology testing to ensure that the approach to the scoping exercise would be productive and useful. Specifically, the MSC focused on SOLAS convention provisions relating to “recovery of persons from the water”; carriage requirements for navigational equipment; load line information; emergency towing arrangements; and navigation bridge visibility. These initial “test” topics were presumably chosen because they are some of the most dynamic, traditionally human-judgment intensive aspects of vessel operations; and will likely present some of the most acutely difficult issues when MASS are plying the seas together with traditional human-helmed ships.

The methodology was ultimately approved during the 100th MSC meeting in 2018, and the above four categories of MASS were converted to an expressly hierarchical order of “Degree One” through “Degree Four.” [NOTE – Lloyd’s Register, a leading vessel classification society, utilizes a six-level hierarchy for vessel autonomy, AL0-AL6]. The scoping exercise is now fully underway, with IMO member states assessing all IMO maritime conventions to determine whether they:

  1. apply to MASS and prevent MASS operations; or
  2. apply to MASS and do not prevent MASS operations and require no actions; or
  3. apply to MASS and do not prevent MASS operations but may need to be amended or clarified, and/or may contain gaps; or
  4. have no application to MASS operations.

After this initial phase has identified the IMO conventions that implicate MASS concerns, the MSC and its member state volunteers will move on to assess “[e]quivalences as provided for by the instruments or developing interpretations; and/or [a]mend[ments] existing instruments; and/or [d]evelop[ment of] new instruments; or [n]one of the above.” This final phase of the scoping exercise is scheduled to be completed by Fall 2020.

In the meantime, and perhaps as a preview, it should be noted that the CMI (as part of the early phases of the project even prior to MSC 99) compiled and submitted a spreadsheet of maritime conventions that (according to CMI’s member law associations) will affect operation of MASS. The spreadsheet can be found here, and is a very insightful look into what promises to be a vastly complex and comprehensive problem of regulating MASS.


In the midst of this recent activity at the IMO level, the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) hosted a recent two-day symposium in July entitled “Reaching Critical Mass: Spotlight on the U.S. Vessel Automation Industry.” The seminar was well-attended, including a large contingent of U.S. maritime labor interests who are keenly concerned about the prospect of automation affecting thousands of jobs in the maritime sector.

The main theme that developed (as presented in Joseph Keef’s July 22, 2019 article for the Marine Logistics Professional) over the two days of sessions – moderated most predominantly by Europeans given the much more robust progress of MASS development in European markets – was that MASS are likely to develop more quickly/widely in the coastal/inland trades (i.e., smaller/medium-sized vessels) well before there is any wide-scale move towards MASS among the large containership fleets. This is mainly because it will remain cheaper for those much larger, much wider-ranging fleets to employ relatively inexpensive seamen labor; and because the necessary parallel automated technology to allow for the interfacing of large vessels with intermodal/port infrastructure is simply not well-developed enough to support large MASS vessels.

Nonetheless, as the panelists noted, large container vessels make up only one percent of the global vessel market, so MASS may still ultimately comprise a huge swathe of seaborne trade (even if not among the largest of vessels). However, the panelists also warned about the proliferation of too many bespoke/one-off design vessels in the MASS space, which could ultimately hamstring any widespread adoption of MASS technologies if the differing systems cannot be easily integrated across vessel-types or markets.

The other main theme at the symposium was the inherent link between proliferation of MASS technologies and environmental concerns, stemming from the fact that most MASS vessels are largely (if not entirely) electric/carbon minimal vis-à-vis increased fuel economy.

This symposium is likely only the beginning for future MARAD involvement in the MASS space, as the agency has established a Maritime Research and Development Center specifically dedicated to “Remote and Autonomous Operations.”


And as noted at the outset, with all this legal/regulatory effort underway, MASS vessels themselves have gotten “underway” on the waters:

  • MARAD itself very recently (this month) conducted a successful trial of the world’s first fully autonomous oil skimming vessel. This technology could allow 24/7 spill response capabilities, without putting humans in potentially very dangerous conditions or exposing them to toxic/hazardous environments.
  • British company SEA-KIT, which was awarded the $7 million Shell Ocean Discovery X-Prize for the best ocean-mapping technology, is set for an early 2020 launch of the 36′ unmanned surface vessel (USV, i.e. remote controlled) MAXLIMER for the world’s first trans-Atlantic unmanned voyage.  The MAXLIMER, described as a “utility pickup vehicle of the sea,” has a 2½-ton cargo capacity, can carry/deploy robotic remotely operated vehicles for subsea exploration, and will conduct sea mapping activities during its historic journey.  The vessel is expected for use in supporting oil and gas rigs and wind turbines and inspecting pipelines.
  • Rolls-Royce recently (December 2018) “successfully demonstrated the world’s first fully autonomous ferry in the archipelago south of the city of Turku, Finland” – namely a car ferry that “successfully navigate[d] autonomously during its voyage between Parainen and Nauvo[, with the] return journey was conducted under remote control.”
  • Kongsberg Maritime and fertilizer giant Yara International are anticipating the launch in 2020 of the YARA BIRKELAND as the world’s first autonomous bulk cargo vessel. The BIRKELAND (whose design/construction has been subsidized by the Norwegian government) is anticipated to launch as a manned vessel with MASS technologies, but to move to full automated operations by 2022. The vessel will service the 31-nautical mile voyage from Yara’s Porsgrunn plant (via inland waterways) to deep sea ports at Larvik and Brevik. Notably, Kongsberg recently announced that it will also be delivering a fully automated mooring system for the BIRKELAND. This speaks to the point raised in the MARAD symposium of ensuring integration across systems for new MASS technologies.
  • Kongsberg also recently launched two fully automated ferries for crossing the one-mile stretch between Anda and Lote in Norway. These vessels (the GLOPPEFJORD and the EIDESFJORD) have been in operation since 2018, and are fully autonomous with the exception of a human captain’s handling of docking procedures.
  • Dutch company Port-Liner plans to launch (by August 2019) a total of five all-electric autonomous barges outfitted for container carriage (270 per barge) on the Wilhelmina canal between the ports of Amsterdam, Antwerp and Rotterdam.
  • Svitzer (a Maersk subsidiary) has likewise trialed remote control tug operations in Copenhagen on the harbor tug SVITZER HERMOD.
  • Maersk has also begun trials on artificial intelligence/situational awareness technologies (similar to driver assistance safety features in road vehicles) on its new ice-class container vessels, which will be plying the newly expanding polar seas.
  • And perhaps most conspicuously, the U.S. Navy has recently requested a $400 million budget for construction and delivery in 2020 of two so-called “Ghost Ships” – “large unmanned surface vessels” – with another eight to follow.

The IMO – slightly behind the curve given the myriad trials/operations already underway – has nonetheless recognized the need for interim guidance for MASS operators pending more comprehensive regulatory action. The MSC 100 last summer issued “provisional principles for the development of guidelines on MASS trials… [including] ensuring that such guidelines should be generic and goal-based, and taking a precautionary approach to ensuring the safe, secure and environmentally sound operation of MASS.” These principles were adopted at MSC 101 in June, and include a requirement for “sufficient cyber risk management of the systems and infrastructure” prior to any MASS trials.

And this focus on cybersecurity during MASS trials underscores the obvious, existential/systemic importance of cybersecurity in the ultimate deployment of MASS technologies, as previously noted on this blog. And given that the IMO has mandated that cybersecurity must be addressed in vessel safety management systems (required under SOLAS) by 2021, any MASS operating after that date will presumably be required to account for the unique and complex cybersecurity concerns inherent in MASS technologies.

As shipping continues its voyage into the next age of technological evolution, as it did from oar to sail, from sail to steam, and from steam to diesel, the legal and regulatory infrastructure will continue to adapt to whatever form the “mast-head” may take.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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