Insurers will be challenged as more autonomous vessels are developed, says Shipowners’ Club’s Paul Grehan
Remote control and autonomous shipping technology has developed far quicker than the relevant regulations. This has the potential to hold back autonomous technology development and challenges shipping companies to insure these future vessels, says Shipowners’ Club syndicate manager Paul Grehan.
He says new types of insurance will need to be introduced for owners, operators and managers of autonomous ships.
As a mutual P&I [protection and indemnity] insurer, Shipowners’ Club has taken on new members that operate remotely controlled and autonomous vessels, demonstrating “that autonomous shipping is moving on apace and into commercial applications,” Mr Grehan tells Tug Technology & Business.
However, regulations are far behind the technology for maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS). “International conventions were not written with unmanned and autonomous operations in mind and so the requirements and language used in many conventions needs to be updated to better contemplate MASS shipping,” says Mr Grehan.
IMO is identifying which conventions require updating at the latest meeting of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) conducted in June 2019.
“But it will be some time before all relevant conventions are identified and updated providing for a clear international regulatory framework that contemplates MASS,” explains Mr Grehan.
“In the meantime, several maritime nations have created test areas, and put in place local regulations to facilitate the operation of MASS in national waters.”
This has encouraged pilot tests and sea trials of smart navigation, remote control and autonomous shipping applications and technology.
Existing applications involve small survey vessels, workboats and harbour vessels. The next stage is to fully commercialise the trialled technical systems for commercial shipping. But technology innovators will need P&I cover, which is a challenge for all stakeholders.
“This is a new area for insurance companies and underwriters do not have much relevant data to base terms upon,” says Mr Grehan.
“Traditional policy wordings do not fit well and it is a requirement under P&I cover provided by international group clubs that vessels are entered with a recognised classification society and comply with SOLAS. But, most MASS that we have come across do not meet these requirements.”
In reaction to these issues, Shipowners’ Club launched a specialist policy for owners and operators of MASS in 2018, which resulted in more autonomous vessel operators using this insurance cover.
“We have taken on several new members who operate remotely controlled and autonomous craft,” says Mr Grehan.
One of these new members is the operator of a semi-autonomous tug that completed a voyage via remote control with a laden barge in tow.
“We have a member who very recently completed an unmanned voyage from Belgium to the UK carrying a cargo of oysters,” says Mr Grehan. “We also have several MASS entered that are used commercially for seismic survey work.”
These additions demonstrate some of the commercial applications remotely controlled and autonomous vessels were built for and the reasons for mitigating risk. New MASS applications underline how local regulation by flag states and authorities and insurance providers had to adapt faster than IMO.
“Given the regulatory challenges and risks involved with autonomous operations, insurers have a vital role to play in facilitating risk transfer,” says Mr Grehan. “This enables shipowners to focus on the operational and technical aspects of their autonomous maritime ventures.”