Maritime Autonomous Ships and Shipping

  • March 10, 2021


The fast-changing and rapid uptake of technologies enabling autonomous surface ships testing and operations demands an updated role not only for any operator but also for Vessel Traffic Services, including vessel traffic monitoring, management, communication and control.

The already applicable EU legislation – the VTMIS Directive – includes provisions that need to be looked at under the perspective of autonomous vessels; how they would impact VTS and what could be done to meet future challenges, including point-to-point intra-EU trade. Another aspect directly related to the VTMIS Directive is the use of communication and monitoring tools (Integrated Maritime Services).

Extensive trials and tests have been identified as a prerequisite and crucial step for safe and successful MASS traffic operation.

To facilitate developments in a safe predictable area/environment and for ensuring safe navigation in the future, also in a mixed traffic situation where both manned and unmanned ships will be sailing on the same routes/ports, the formal Governance group under the EU legislation started to look into the various issues, pro-actively, already in Summer 2018. The work is much future oriented and requires challenging conventional concepts and operations.

EU Operational Guidelines on trials of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS)

The first version of EU Operational Guidelines on trials of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships has been developed for guidance and use in the interest of the protection of safety and security at sea and of the marine and coastal environment. The guidelines are the result of a joint effort of the European Union Member States maritime authorities together with key industry stakeholders, under the auspices of the Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) expert group, chaired by the European Commission, with the support of the European Maritime Safety Agency.

These EU Operational Guidelines, in building on and complementing the interim Guidelines on MASS developed by the International Maritime Organisation, are not the final product. Rather they will be adjusted and improved continuously as experience will be gained from trials and tests as well as results from relevant EU funded research and studies.

At the occasion of the 2nd International Ship Autonomy and Sustainability Summit on 30 November 2020, the members of the EU MASS experts group in promoting a continued positive spirit and enhanced co-operation and coordination among all parties involved, including concerned Industry, for the safe, sustainable and effective development of autonomous shipping, endorsed the following key principles:

  • Start using the EU Operational Guidelines for trials and tests of MASS and exchange within and between EU Member States; and to identify needs for the further development as new challenges arise.
  • Present and Make the EU Operational Guidelines publicly available by appropriate means.
  • Bring the EU Operational Guidelines to the attention of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and other appropriate stakeholder fora as well as to international like-minded partners.
  • Work towards including the EU Operational Guidelines in regional agreements/plans.
  • Support the use of the Union Maritime Information and Exchange System providing Integrated Maritime Services and its further development for the safe management, monitoring, communication and control of autonomous ships and shipping.
  • Continue working in the context of the MASS expert group, inter alia, on:
  • The continuous improvement of the EU Operational Guidelines, in all its aspects, including uptake from relevant R&D projects and studies, to address the challenges and achieve alignment of standards and common understanding for trials and operations of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships, including in ports;
  • Gathering and exchanging experience and developing practical procedures on the operational use of the EU Operational Guidelines, including table top exercises, building on the work by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) and liaising with other fora, both civil and military;
  • Developing, in due course, with the support of EMSA, appropriate training on the EU Operational Guidelines including on information sharing, communication and use of the Union Maritime Information and Exchange System;
  • Improving the risk assessment methodology, based on e.g. state-of-the-art research;
  • Further exploring needs, requirements and standards for seamless and integrated information and communication flows between autonomous ships/remote control centres and with national/regional vessel traffic services, as well as between authorities and operators.


2nd International Ship Autonomy and Sustainability Summit

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