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Rules of the Road: IMO talks satellite providers, autonomous ships, Polar Code


The world’s primary regulatory body for maritime regulations, the International Maritime Organization, had a full agenda at its semi-annual meeting in May. Here is a summary of the major topics that could potentially affect yachts, both their construction and operation.

Autonomous vessels

Discussions on maritime autonomous surface ships have begun at the IMO. The Maritime Safety Committee initiated a debate on how to proceed with a regulatory scoping exercise. It is expected to touch on an extensive range of issues, including the human element, safety, security, interactions with ports, pilotage, responses to incidents, and protection of the marine environment, for different levels of autonomy.

Speaking at the opening of the 99th session of the MSC (May 16-25), the IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said, “It is important that we remain flexible to accommodate new technologies, and so improve the efficiency of shipping – while at the same time keeping in mind the role of the human element and the need to maintain safe navigation, further reducing the number of marine casualties and incidents.”

Lim also announced the formation of an inter-divisional maritime autonomous surface ships task force, within the IMO Secretariat, to support the work on this important matter.

While it is not foreseen in the immediate future that yachts will be without crew, especially with the inherent level of service, the technology that will eventually be approved for autonomous ships will definitely make its way into yachting.  This could modify the number of minimum nautical crew (mates, engineers, ETO, deckhands, etc.) needed on board. Stay tuned.

Polar Code

The International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters entered into force in January 2017 under both the SOLAS and MARPOL treaties. It provides additional requirements for ships trading in Arctic waters and the Antarctic area, on top of applicable SOLAS and MARPOL regulations.

The MSC considered how the safety measures of the Polar Code might be applied in the future to non-SOLAS vessels operating in polar waters. It agreed that the development of such safety measures should focus on fishing vessels, pleasure yachts above 300 GT not engaged in trade, and cargo ships below 500 GT down to 300 GT.

As a first step, the MSC instructed the Sub-Committee on Ship Design and Construction to develop recommendatory safety measures for fishing vessels of 24m (78 feet) in length and over, and pleasure yachts above 300 GT not engaged in trade.

The committee agreed to establish a working group to further consider how to move forward with developing mandatory and/or recommendatory measures for ships operating in polar waters but not currently covered by the Polar Code. An expanded involvement was extended to the Sub-Committee on Navigation, Communications, and Search and Rescue concerning requirements for such vessels.

GMDSS – new approved provider

The MSC agreed that Iridium Satellite LLC had satisfied the established criteria to receive recognition as a mobile satellite communication service provider in the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. This approval of Iridium essentially ends the nearly 40-year monopoly of GMDSS services held by Inmarsat.

The IMO further adopted a statement of recognition of the maritime mobile satellite services provided by Iridium Satellite LLC, which recognizes the services provided by the Iridium Safety Voice, Short-Burst Data, and enhanced group calling services for use in the GMDSS. The International Mobile Satellite Organization was invited to monitor the implementation of the Iridium services.

The IMO also announced that the application for China-based operator, Beidou Navigation Satellite Systems, was under review, with no current objections for their approval.

The next scheduled meeting of the IMO’S Marine Safety Committee is set for December. Expect to see an update here at the beginning of 2019.

Capt. Jake DesVergers is chief surveyor for International Yacht Bureau ( Comments are welcome below.

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