Russia has reported to the IMO on autonomous ships trials carried out in 2021

Russia sent the official report on autonomous ships trials of 2021 to the International Maritime Organization. The proper reporting is requested by the Interim Guideline on MASS Trials (MSC.1/Circ.1604) issued by the IMO in 2019. Previously, Japan, China and France also reported on MASS (maritime autonomous surface ship) trials conducted in those countries.

The trials are provided within the Autonomous and Remote Navigation Trial Project (ARNTP), involving three vessels in continuous operation within regular commercial voyages: Rabochaya by Rosmorport, Pola Anfisa by Pola Rise, and Mikhail Ulyanov by SCF. Based on the report, in 2021, the automatic and remote control trials were carried out during 28 commercial voyages.

The trials program includes a remote operation (via a remote control station, with permanent contact with the supervising crew onboard), automatic navigation (using an autonomous navigation system under the supervision of the crew onboard and additional control by the remote operator), and automatic navigation in heavy traffic areas. The remote operation trials were carried out in February – April 2021. In combination with remote control, the automated operation trials started in February 2021 and with automatic control only in May 2021.

The report (MSC 105/INF.12) shares some particular outputs of the trials. One of outputs indicates a remote operator can provide watchkeeping and control MASS in normal conditions in high seas at the same level of safety as a navigator onboard does. The report also stresses several issues limiting broad commercial use of the remote control now: maritime telecommunication reliability and night vision requiring expensive thermal cameras and proper skills by a remote control operator.

Automatic navigation was used for more than 100 hours during the trials at different voyages in high seas and heavy traffic areas. Russia says the results, with some reservations, indicate that in normal conditions, automatic navigation can provide the same level of efficiency as human control, but currently, it is inferior in quality of control by a highly qualified navigator. The autonomous navigation system can keep the route and maneuver in standard situations, and it can recognize on its own the situations of automatic control restrictions (as it is prescribed by the Recommendations on COLREGs applications for MASS use, issued by the Federal Agency of Maritime and River Transport of the Russian Federation in 2021). But in non-standard cases (with various possible interpretations of the COLREGs provisions, especially in heavy traffic areas), either human control or an algorithm based on “ordinary practice of seafarers” is still required. Also, outputs indicate that the use of automatic control requires new competencies by seafarers: understanding of signs and triggers of non-standard situations, when automatic control is restricted, or its efficiency is limited, as well as failures of a-Navigation systems.

The final considerations of the report say that from seafarer, shipowner, and administration views, a MASS can be considered as a traditional ship, but with more capabilities of supervision and control options. Shipowners and masters, at that, continue to play their roles as responsible persons. At the same time, the options available allow them to use autonomous and remote control means to add or replace the traditional ones when the safety and efficiency of shipping can be increased. When implemented, the complete functional equivalence principle, complying with the current COLREGs requirements, provides that other navigation participants do not need to pay any particular attention to MASS. From the point of view of other navigators, such MASS do not differ from the traditional ships at interactions that ensure their coexistence within the current safety regulation.

Also, triple supervision onboard (automatic systems, remote operator, and crew onboard) can substantially increase safety at the most dangerous ships like large passenger ships and ships carrying dangerous goods.

At the same time, for effective a-Navigation development, it would be reasonable to facilitate safety regulation enhancement for all vessels by formalizing “ordinary practice of seafarers” and expanding mandatory AIS use to all ships and offshore platforms/constructions. Such an approach will substantially improve the situation awareness not only for the MASS but for traditional ships and monitoring services. Also, sharing real-time information on MASS maneuvers via AIS (VDES) with other autonomous and traditional ships could be a promising opportunity for safer and more transparent MASS operations.

The report says that the trials and further developments of a-Navigation systems will continue in 2022.