Steps towards automated shipping

Finland is one of the leaders in promoting and testing automation in shipping. We want to speed up the development both in international forums and during Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

In terms of legislation, the key issues in automation are related to the type of decisions the autonomous devices of vessels can make, for example.  Further important questions include those concerned with the crew: what the definition of a captain is and under what conditions a ship is allowed to sail under remote control. 

The International Maritime Organisation, IMO, is currently assessing its regulations to find out whether they include any obstacles to automation in shipping. Finland has actively taken part in the work to ensure that any possible obstacles can be removed.

With the help of the volunteering countries, the review of the regulation has proceeded as planned and the results of the first stage will be analysed in September 2019.  The results and the recommendations will be available in 2020. That will be the time for Finland to act in order to get the necessary regulations through the slow international process as swiftly as possible.

Temporary guidelines

Since the regulatory work is not finished yet, the IMO Maritime Safety Committee has drafted temporary guidelines for the testing of automated vessels on international waters and in international traffic. The aim of the guidelines is to support the authorities and businesses in maintaining at least the same level of safety, security and environmental friendliness in the experiments as in regular traffic.

The key areas in the guidelines are risk management and responsibilities.  The guidelines do not limit the area used for testing, but a permit for the experiment must be available from the flag state and, when necessary, from the coastal and port authorities.

Data sharing necessary but challenging

Sharing of digital data is absolutely necessary to prevent, for example, ship collisions and grounding and to allow safe navigation. The higher the traffic volumes, the more precise and real-time data is needed. At international level, Finland wants to promote the sharing of important safety data also between businesses.

The landforms of the Finnish coast pose special challenges to automation experiments. In the smart route project, a data model was created of some parts of the routes to support the safety of the experiments.  Thanks to the smart routes, remote piloting could already be tested. Remote piloting refers to piloting that takes place outside the vessel.

In future, an experiment using remote piloting and covering the entire transport system could be carried out even in traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn. It would be extremely challenging, because the traffic volumes in the area are very high. A requirement for safe testing is the development of the Baltic Sea as a test platform.

The conditions for automation vary also in terms of communications connections, depending on the location of the experiment: whether it is on the open sea or in the coastal area. The slower connections in the open sea are not enough for transferring great amounts of data. In the coastal and port areas, however, 4G makes it possible. The introduction of 5G will improve the speed, capacity and reliability of data transfer.

In the testing, it is particularly important to ensure automatic connection management from one data transfer technology to another during the trip.

Guidelines prepared also in the EU

Simultaneously with the IMO guidelines, the EU is also preparing its own regional guidelines.  Particular attention will be paid to vessel traffic management, VTS, risk management and the services provided by the European Maritime Safety Agency.

The next meeting around the topic will be arranged in Rauma in October during Finland’s Presidency of the EU Council. Finland will then have an excellent opportunity to present Finnish training and expertise on the maritime cluster to the EU Commission and member states.

A conference, Digital Transport Days, will also be arranged in cooperation with the Commission and the Ministry of Transport and Communications.  In addition to automation in maritime transport, its aim is to extensively discuss new technologies and digitalisation in transport services.

A common goal of all stakeholders is safe, efficient and environmentally sustainable automated shipping. This calls for clear rules, cooperation, interoperability and testing. Trust between different actors is built especially in networks and ecosystems and they need to be promoted at national, EU and international levels.

Anne Miettinen
The writer works as Senior Ministerial Adviser at the Data Business Unit in Data Department of the Ministry of Transport and Communications.

Kirjoittanut: Anne Miettinen