We are working to ensure the safety of autonomous cargo ships

image of cargo ship

The Challenge

We are moving towards a world where we accept trains, trucks and cars without human drivers. Some will be remotely controlled by a controller situated in a central location: some will go further and be entirely autonomous. The same thing goes for cargo ships, where the movement is towards eliminating human onboard crews. Such ships are called Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASSs for short). This is partly for safety, a mariner’s life is always hazardous, but also for efficiency gains: a great deal more space is freed up for cargo carriage.

Unfortunately a great many of the laws, both national and international, that currently deal with shipping assume that a ship has an onboard crew. These laws are difficult and sometimes impossible to apply to MASSs. The primary objective of this study is to deal with this problem. We need to firstly highlight regulatory and legal challenges that need to be addressed so that MASSs can operate within the law, and secondly, as a matter of urgency, to update existing laws to make them fit for purpose as regards MASSs.

The Method

Our own research on this subject has been undertaken by three professors, all members of our highly expert Institute of International Shipping and Trade Law - Professors Leloudas, Soyer and Tettenborn, but this research is multidisciplinary. We have collaborated with many stakeholders including; computer scientists and safe systems experts at York University, as well as regulators and psychologists working on human-computer interactions.

Our investigations have, at all times, been directed towards increasing people’s understanding about how autonomous systems work in practice and what difficulties arise when passing control from humans to machine. In light of this we have then investigated how far legal rules and safety regulations need to be amended to accommodate the safe use of such vessels in UK territorial waters.

The Impact

The research has been utilised by:

  • The Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA) - which is one of the governmental bodies tasked with developing appropriate regulation in this field for the UK
  • The Assuring Autonomy International Programme (from whom we now have a substantial research grant) to provide a demonstration project showing legal and regulatory challenges autonomy in shipping presents.

The study also appears in print, as part of “Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Shipping”, published by Hart Publishing and is the first book to fully cover the subject in the UK.

More generally, the research has made it substantially easier for shipping companies in the UK and worldwide to access the safety improvements and efficiency savings that come with the use of MASSs.

Associated Researcher

Professor George Leloudas

Professor George Leloudas
The text reads United Nations Sustainable Development Themes
UNSDG 9 Industry innovation and infrastructure
Text reads Swansea University Research Themes