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Interpreting the 'rules of the road' at sea for autonomous vessels

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Frazer-Nash has been appointed by Trusted Autonomous Systems to develop a supporting framework for vessel compliance with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs).

To help the growing number of autonomous vessel operators comply with the 'rules of the road', the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs), engineering consultancy Frazer-Nash has been appointed by Trusted Autonomous Systems (TAS*) in Australia to develop a supporting framework for vessel compliance. 

For years the autonomous maritime industry has been wrestling with the challenge of complying with COLREGs. The regulations have not been updated since 1972, when the authors couldn't have conceived of decisions being made by computers, rather than humans onboard.

Specifically COLREGs describe the features vessels must have to facilitate being seen and identified, define means of communication between vessels for the purposes of signalling intent and, importantly, describe the navigational behaviours expected of vessels in proximity to one another, for the purposes of avoiding collision.

As a maritime safety specialist with deep defence capability and experience, Frazer-Nash has been appointed to address the challenge by developing an enabling framework to support compliance by autonomous vessels. The project also aims to develop a methodology that will be agreed to by the Australian regulator, The Australian Maritime Safety Authority.  

Frazer-Nash’s Group Leader for Systems Safety and Assurance, Robert Dickie said:

“We are drawing on our decades of national and international maritime knowledge to consider the specific risks posed by the full spectrum of autonomous vessels. Rather than defining a set of requirements we will present a range of risk mitigation options to address the ‘spirit’ of COLREGs as they apply to autonomous vessels.” 

Robert has extensive experience in the assurance of maritime autonomous systems, having been a member of the UK Maritime Autonomous Systems Regulatory Working Group (MASRWG) and developing the initial draft of the Lloyd’s Register Code for Un-crewed Marine Systems.

The project outputs include an operational tool and user guidance to help designers and operators of autonomous vehicles and Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) to be consistent in application of the framework.

“We are seeking to define what constitutes ‘compliance’, in a practical sense, and in a way that the regulator, AMSA, would accept,” said Robert.

*TAS, together with its participants and the Australian Department of Defence, is developing the capacity of Australia’s defence industry to acquire, deploy and sustain the most advanced autonomous and robotic technology. 

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