Design & Engineering Standards

3/29/2018: CMA Shipping 2018 – The critical role of integrating new technology within the regulatory approval process

Photo of Mayte Medina giving presentation

Mayte Medina, chief of Merchant Mariner Credentialing, discusses autonomous vessels and the regulatory approval process, during CMA Shipping 2018, in Stamford, Conn.

Editor’s note: Connecticut Maritime Association’s Shipping 2018 may be over, but Maritime Commons continues to bring you coverage of Coast Guard presentations from the conference. In this post, a discussion about autonomous vessel technology and the regulatory approval process.

Ms. Mayte Medina, chief of the Office of Merchant Mariner Credentialing, gave a presentation to attendees of Connecticut Maritime Association Shipping 2018, held March 12-15, 2018 in Stamford, on the critical role of integrating new technology within the regulatory approval process. Medina’s presentation was part of a panel focused on autonomous shipping, and included executives from classification societies DNV GL and Bureau Veritas. Joe Megeed with Oil Companies International Marine Forum moderated the session.

Medina, who is also the chair of the International Maritime Organization Sub-committee on Human Element, Training and Watchkeeping, said increasing efficiency and reducing cost, specialized operations, increasing environmental concerns and increased safety are all drivers in the industry’s advancement toward more autonomy in shipping. IMO must ensure the future regulatory regime is fair and consistent.

“Industry can only operate effectively if the standards are agreed upon, adopted, and consistently implemented on an international basis,” Medina said. “Achieving this goal comes with the responsibility to accommodate new technology while ensuring safe, secure, and environmentally sound ship operations.”

Introducing technology into the IMO regulatory framework is nothing new, Medina said. Over the decades, IMO has accommodated many industry-driven new technologies, like the move from steam and diesel engines to unmanned engine rooms, e-navigation, and solo-watch-keeping, to name just a few. Additionally, IMO introduced the need for new technologies like ballast water management systems.

However, establishing regulations for the use of autonomous shipping is unique in that it challenges the model upon which all regulations are based: seafarers physically onboard the ship have the responsibility for the navigation and operation of the ship.

“The difference with past experiences is that the inclusion of autonomous ships into the regulations is going to be more comprehensive, because it will have a dramatic impact on various facets of shipping, including construction, equipment, and operations,” Medina said.

For example, when talking about autonomous ships, Medina said the question of technology extends far beyond engine room automation, into the potential use of artificial intelligence to make decisions on operations or management.

“Seafarers make decisions based on the information they receive and sometimes these are judgment calls. We must understand how automated systems will interact with other ships, pilots, or shore support.”

Additionally, Medina said the STCW Convention contains competencies considered essential to the safe operation of ships at sea or in port. The transfer of responsibilities away from the ship may require that the remote operator hold most of those competencies.

“How do we ensure the system or artificial intelligence can also meet those competencies?” Medina said, adding that IMO must also consider the question of responsibility and liability.

“The current model is for the ship to be manned by seafarers and that the responsibility for the ship lies on the master,” Medina said. “Some autonomous ships could change that paradigm. It may no longer be about who the ship’s master is but who is responsible in the event of a spill or marine casualty, which potentially could be a remote operator.”

To inform the answers to some of the questions related to the challenges autonomous shipping poses, IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) will hold a scoping exercise starting in May 2018 to identify an inventory of gaps and provisions in the current IMO regulatory regime that may preclude or limit the use of ships with varying levels of autonomy. Medina said one of the first tasks of the scoping exercise will be to establish standardized terms to define what constitutes an autonomous ship as well as the varying levels of autonomy that may exist.

Medina said the MSC agreed on an aggressive timeline for the scoping exercise and that they need to adopt a method of work that is flexible, provides the right level of subject matter expertise, accomplishes the work in an expedited manner, and is consistent throughout the scoping exercise.

“The key of this work is going to be defining the terms of reference for how to conduct the review of the instruments,” Medina said, adding that the terms of reference should include provisions that:

1. May preclude unmanned commercial operation of autonomous ships.
2. May be addressed through equivalencies, exemptions, or interpretations as provided by the instrument.
3. Do not preclude unmanned operations but that may need to be amended.

Medina said the scoping exercise will be difficult, but that the real challenge will be deciding on what regulatory changes are needed to preserve safety, security, and environmental goals with the operation of autonomous ships.

“For IMO to be successful, it will need the full engagement of all stakeholders,” she said. “IMO can address the technical and some of the legal issues, but it cannot address the business or public policy decisions that ultimately will need to be made.”

Want to read more of our coverage from CMA Shipping 2018? Check out these other posts:

3/15/2018: CMA Shipping 2018 – IMO and environmental standards

3/13/2018: CMA Shipping 2018 – Summary of keynote address by Deputy Commandant for Operations, Vice Adm. Charles Ray

3/12/2018: CMA Shipping 2018 – Summary of remarks by Asst Commandant for Prevention Policy Rear Adm. John Nadeau


This blog is not a replacement or substitute for the formal posting of regulations and updates or existing processes for receiving formal feedback of the same. Links provided on this blog will direct the reader to official source documents, such as the Federal Register, Homeport and the Code of Federal Regulations. These documents remain the official source for regulatory information published by the Coast Guard.

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