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Smarter ships require new rules

08 January 2020

Fewer accidents, greater efficiency and less environmental impact. The potential of smart ships is great, but in order for it to be fully utilized, new rules are needed. This according to a new report from the Swedish Transport Agency.

Various systems in shipping are being digitized and more and more automated - a trend that has brought great benefits.

“Automating processes on ships can, for example, contribute to reduced fuel consumption with advanced, automatic energy systems and better navigation and route planning tools. Automated processes can also lead to shipping being able to compete with other types of traffic to a greater extent, Henrik Tunfors, management strategist at the Swedish Transport Agency, says in a press release.

Smart ships are a collective term for several different types of vessels. This may include both manned vessels with an automated decision support as well as fully remotely operated and unmanned vessels. As a rule, it is the latter - the future self-driving vessels that have appeared in the media I spectacular news reports . But what shipping company is really interested in running a freighter in international traffic unmanned?

"In 40 years, the majority of all vessels are still conventional," said Christer Lindvall, sea captain and member of the Swedish Mercantile Marine Foundation in an article on Lighthouse's website last year.

There are several reasons. First, there is neither financial incentives nor any other impetus from the shipping companies to make their fleet autonomous and self-driving. Rebuilding 47,000 new vessels is not done in a single turn, and even if it were possible, it is simply too expensive, Christer Lindvall said.

The law is also a problem, he said. Major changes are required in the international regulations, changes that must then be implemented in each country's national legislation and responsibilities.

So no unmanned ships in the future then? Well, even though the big change is happening in the decision support, Christer Lindvall saw the potential for unmanned vessels on shorter distances at national level.

The Swedish Transport Agency's report on smart ships do the same analysis. There is consensus in the industry that the opportunities and driving forces for, for example, self-driving tankers are limited and that “it is more likely that autonomous vessels will be used for fixed routes, for example road traffic".

But just like Christer Lindvall, the Swedish Transport Agency sees a large number of obstacles before self-driving ships and unmanned vehicles can be used in general. Those are acceptance of technology, adapted infrastructure and access to test environments and not least – about the rules.

The report therefore proposes that the Swedish Transport Agency should:

• Continue to actively act and push Swedish positions in the international bodies where the authority has the opportunity to influence the future regulations for shipping.

• Plan for a review of Swedish national legislation to investigate what future regulation of smart ships might look like, both in the short and long term.

• Investigate whether today's regulations can be adapted to include unmanned surface vehicles and, if not, to make proposals for regulations.

• Consider the possibility of implementing a policy lab (while regulations on smarts ships are pending) to fins solutions to enable the use (including testing) of these vessels.Related content: 

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