Autonomous sailing update

Despite the challenges that all global businesses have experienced in the last year, the drive to automation is continuing and in some instances - possibly as a result of the re-evaluation of business models promoted by the pandemic - is increasing in pace. The UK Government intends to take one of the leadings roles in this development, specifically within the maritime sector.

UK initiatives in autonomous shipping

The Maritime UK Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group was set up to identify issues related to the safe operation of Maritime Autonomous Ship Systems (MASS) and formulate a regulatory framework that could be adopted by the UK and other states.

It published a the first industry Code of Practice for Maritime Autonomous Ship Systems in November 2017, which has since seen various updates, the most recent of them being in November 2020. It is not a legal text but offers guidance to manufacturers and service providers, and Maritime UK reports that many manufacturers’ clients require compliance with this Code as a basis for contractual negotiations.

In August 2020, the British Ports Association launched a new initiative considering the implication of autonomous shipping for UK Ports. This is a reminder that successful autonomous shipping extends to more than just a vessel.

Human interaction

Beyond the vessel and the ports that it will call at, vessel autonomy (notwithstanding its name), will require human interaction. Even autonomy at its highest level (see our comments with respect to different levels of autonomy) where vessels will be fully autonomous with no crew, skilled men and women will still be critical in the implementation and overseeing the operation, and there will be an entirely new industry opening up requiring new skills.

The UK is taking the lead in this area as well. In collaboration with geo-data company Fugro and next generation learning products and services company, Seabot XR, the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) have established MASSPeople, a MASS International Training Standards working group.

The UK is the first flag state to join the group, which will collaborate to develop training and competency standards for remote and autonomous vessels, the MCA tweeting that it “continues to shape the future of training for autonomous shipping globally with MASSPeople, a pioneering working group working group to develop world-leading standards.


As discussed in our previous articles (here and below), autonomous shipping brings of wealth of advantages to the shipping industry. It is hoped it will make shipping safer and more efficient, which will be a useful weapon in the arsenal as the industry battles climate change and aims to reduce the considerable carbon footprint.

But it will transform the industry in ways not seen before and that will come with a whole host of new challenges. From an insurance and legal perspective, questions concerning the seaworthiness of these vessels and the safety of cargo on board will be at the forefront of many debates and, inevitably, legal disputes. The training of the men and women involved in operating and working with these new autonomous systems to the highest of standards will help limit the risk involved, as will investment in and the willingness to actually use these new practices. That in turn will assist insurers, allowing them to support the industry, which will promote the development of shipping innovation and regulation even further.

Read other items in Marine Brief - March 2021

Related items:

Related content