Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) communications – How safe is safe?

Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) communications – How safe is safe?

Digital transformation (DX) is the hottest topic in any industry of the world, and artificial intelligence (AI) is said to be the driver of such DX revolutions, already being used in many systems around the world. For example, car manufactures invest huge amounts of money for development of autonomous vehicles which move safely without any human interventions by utilizing the most up-to-date sensor technologies as replacements of human eyes and ears as well as using AI technology instead of human brains. Oceangoing ships are not exceptional in this worldwide trend.

Ship builders, shipowners, IT firms, satellite operators, and regulators are already engaged in the development of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS),and the International Maritime Organization(IMO), the London based UN organization regulating maritime industries through its international legal instruments, also set the framework and methodology for the regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships(MASS) at its 100the session of the Maritime Safety Committee(MSC100) in 2018.  Along with these guidelines, satellite operators together with shipping industries are involved in various trials to provide a MASS system.

The maritime industry is probably the most strictly regulated industry in the world through IMO’s instruments, such as international conventions and resolutions, in terms of the safety of life at sea and marine environment protection. For example, this is regulated through the International Convention on Safety of Life at Sea(SOLAS), the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certifications and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), and the International Convention on the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). Therefore, since a number of such international instruments, including IMO’s telecommunication requirements, must be reviewed in order to accept fully automated autonomous ships, IMO has commenced this regulatory scoping exercise to identify what instruments should be reviewed since 2018.

As discussed in the subsequent paragraphs, autonomous ships may be remotely controlled from shore for the foreseeable future. In this case, radiocommunications will be a key element to ensure the safety of the MASS operations.  However, there is no sufficient discussion on how to secure the adequate availability and security of the radiocommunication systems to provide acceptable levels of communication links between ships and shores. This article provides a brief outlook of such issues and a set of proposals on the best way forward.

Four degrees of autonomy for the purpose of the scoping exercise

The IMO Maritime Safety Committee identified the following four degrees of autonomy for the purpose of the regulatory scoping exercise[1]:

  • Degree 1: Ship with automated processes and decision support: Seafarers are on board to operate and control shipboard systems and functions. Some operations may be automated and at times be unsupervised but with seafarers on board ready to take control.
  • Degree 2: Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. Seafarers are available on board to take control and to operate the shipboard systems and functions.
  • Degree 3: Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: The ship is controlled and operated from another location. There are no seafarers on board.
  • Degree 4: Fully autonomous ship: The operating system of the ship is able to make decisions and determine actions by itself.

These four degrees have been prepared with the assumption that although the ultimate goal is to set up completely unmanned ships, without any human interventions, under the control of AI as defined in the degree 4, there should be some intermediate steps, as defined in the degree 1, 2 and 3, on the way to the degree 4 in terms of technological and legal perspectives.

Degree 4 is a fully autonomous ship, in which all decision-making is based on an on-site AI system onboard a ship without any controls from shore, but degree 3 is an unmanned ship remotely controlled from shore-based control centers which may be manned with assistance by shore-based AI systems.  In other words, the communication system between ships and shore is one of the key elements to achieve acceptable levels of safety of life at sea.  Unless the communication system provides a sufficient level of availability and security to ensure that the communication link is not cut off for any reasons and protected from any hijackers or other harmful attacks, the safety of life at sea will not be maintained effectively under degree 3.

It should be noted that since shipping industries have been facing a lack of seafarers, the number of required watchkeeping seafarers on board a ship has been reduced since the 1990’s based on the available technologies.  A completely unmanned ship is the ultimate goal. However, even though the AI is not sufficient as a replacement of the human-being, remotely control ships without seafarers on board as defined in degree 3 will be welcomed by the industry.

How is the current communication system regulated?

IMO mandates carriage of a set of accepted radiocommunication systems on board a ship to provide distress, urgency, and safety communications under the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) set out in chapter IV of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS Convention). These requirements include satellite communications such as Inmarsat and Iridium which may be utilized for the MASS communications as well. At the moment, only Inmarsat and Iridium have been recognized by the lMO for the GMDSS satellite communication services.

The recognition criteria to become a GMDSS satellite communication service provider in IMO is provided in the IMO’s Assembly resolution A.1001(25).  Resolution A.1001(25) requires the GMDSS satellite communication service providers to ensure 99.9 % network availability in a year[2] and restoration capability within one hour when a system failure occurs[3].  For these reasons, the current GMDSS satellite service providers maintain backup systems for both space segments and ground segments.

This resolution also requires to provision of the following functions,[4] with the priority processing in the order of distress, urgency, safety, and routine communications in accordance with ITU Radio Regulations[5];

  • ship-to-shore distress alerts/calls.
  • shore-to-ship distress relay alerts/calls.
  • ship-to-shore, shore-to-ship and ship-to-ship search and rescue coordinating communications.
  • ship-to-shore transmissions of Maritime Safety Information.
  • shore-to-ship broadcasting of Maritime Safety Information.
  • ship-to-shore, shore-to-ship, and ship-to-ship general communications.

This resolution has many other requirements to ensure all of the above functions between ships and shore-based authorities, such as Rescue Coordination Centers (RCCs) and Maritime Safety Information (MSI) Providers.  However, these functional requirements related to distress and safety communications will be irrelevant to the MASS communications which is going to be discussed in this article.

What kinds of communication systems will be needed for MASS?

Assuming that at least 6 Mbps bandwidth will be required to transmit video and various sensor data on board a ship, M. Höyhtyä et al. (2017)[6] provides a good analysis of the possible options on communication systems, such as IEEE802.11p, WiFi, LTE/4G, 5G, Satellite (LEO, MEO and GEO), and High-Altitude Platforms (HAPs), which could be used for the MASS communications.

The traditional GMDSS communications, including satellite services, are text-based narrow-band systems which can be transmitted with just 10kbps.  Therefore, the GMDSS communication channels will not be sufficient for the MASS communications.

If a ships navigational route is within coastal regions, LTE/4G and 5G cellphone networks may provide sufficient bandwidth, but if it is a deep ocean beyond coastal regions, perhaps high throughput satellite communications, such as Ku and Ka band satellite services will be more realistic options for the MASS communications for the foreseeable future.

In this case, the MASS communication providers may need to consider how to ensure the same level of availability and recovery capability as required for the GMDSS communications.  Although there is no international criteria for the MASS communications at this stage, it is natural to require 99.9% availability and one-hour recovery capability in the same way as the GMDSS communications since both GMDSS and MASS are directly linked to safety of life at sea.  The aforementioned Ku and Ka band VSAT services may not provide 99.9% availability since these high frequency spectrums are weak against rainfall attenuation. However, they may achieve it by utilizing automatic switchover systems to lower spectrum such as L-band and S-band as well as other networks available in coastal regions.

The MASS communications should provide not only an acceptable level of availability and recovery capability with sufficient throughput and delay (hereinafter referred to “Quality of Service (QoS)”), but also a certain level of security to protect the network from other threats such as 1) losing the data, 2) data is changed and 3) hijacking the data as pointed-out by M. Höyhtyä et al. (2017).  New international criteria for the MASS communications should be developed at the IMO to address these requirements on QoS and security if necessary.

How to ensure QoS and security?

The GMDSS satellite providers are overseen by the International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO) to ensure their compliance with the required network availability and other requirements in accordance with IMO resolution A.1001(25)[7]. IMSO submits the reports on compliance to IMO resolution A.1001(25) by the GMDSS satellite providers every year to the IMO’s NCSR Sub-Committee[8].  There is a historical background for this practice since Inmarsat was an inter-governmental organization before its privatization in 1999 and its inter-governmental function was succeeded by the International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO) after 1999.

However, the GMDSS communication systems include not only satellite services but also other terrestrial services such as DSC[9] on MF, HF, and VHF.  These terrestrial services are also provided in accordance with the IMO’s criteria for providing radio services[10], but the compliance to these criteria is not monitored or overseen by any international organizations.  They are just monitored by individual States establishing these coastal radio stations.

The development of new criteria for establishing the MASS communications may commence in the very near future at the IMO.  During this development, not only technical criteria to accept the communication systems for MASS, but also the governance of the MASS communications to ensure the compliance to the newly established criteria will be needed.

Recommendations for communication service providers and policymakers

As mentioned in the beginning of this article, several satellite service providers with maritime industries are already involved in some MASS trials using their broadband services for ships.  A number of trial reports have been submitted to the IMO Maritime Safety Committees through their administrations, but the proposals related to the MASS communication systems are very limited at this stage.   Stakeholders on the MASS communications should consider: 1) necessity of the international criteria for the MASS communications; 2) levels of QoS and security required; and 3) how to monitor the compliance to the criteria.

[1] IMO MSC 100/20, annex 2, paragraph 4
[2] IMO Resolution A.1001(25), paragraph 3.5.4
[3] IMO Resolution A.1001(25), paragraph 3.6.1
[4] IMO Resolution A.1001(25), paragraph 3.1
[5] IMO Resolution A.1001(25), paragraph 3.3.1
[6] M. Höyhtyä, J. Huusko, M. Kiviranta, K. Solberg and J. Rokka (2017), “Connectivity for autonomous ships: Architecture, use cases, and research challenges,” 2017 International Conference on Information and Communication Technology Convergence (ICTC), Jeju, pp. 345-350.
[7] IMO Resolution A.1001(25), paragraph 2.4.1
[8] SubCommittee on Navigation, Communications and Search and Rescue
[9] Digital Selective Calling
[10] IMO Resolution A.801(19)

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