Maritime Autonomy remains one of the fastest growing areas of the maritime industry and has already been used for a wide array of operations, such as hydrographic surveys. In Maritime 2050 [] the UK government set out its commitment to be at the forefront of development by creating a permissive environment to enable industry to make progress. Likewise, the International Maritime Organisation’s strategic plan included integrating ‘new and advancing technologies in the regulatory framework” as a key Strategic Direction.  

Vessel Developments 

Currently, Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) operating in UK waters are under 24m, and tend to be remotely operated either with or without seafarers onboard. In commercial operations these are predominately being used for survey or marine monitoring. The military, particularly the Royal Navy, are also developing and operating vessels for mine hunting and target practice. Some vessels are starting to make use of ‘smarter’ technologies such as automated collision avoidance or computer vision to identify hazards to support the remote operator. The development and diversification of MASS into larger sizes and varied uses is happening as confidence and acceptance of the technology grows. 

International Regulation 

To address autonomy and MASS, the IMO through its Maritime Safety, Legal and Facilitation Committees, undertook regulatory scoping exercises (2018 – 2021) to identify barriers and gaps that could prevent the operation of MASS internationally. This has been completed, identifying the areas that need addressing in the international instruments such as SOLAS to allow the safe and environmentally sounds operation of these vessels. Whilst the environmental conventions still require review, the Maritime Safety Committee has agreed a roadmap to update its instruments through the development of a MASS Code The MASS Code will become mandatory in 2028, following its voluntary introduction in 2025. The UK engages and takes a leading role in IMO discussions, using its experience of working with the MASS industry, in areas such as hydrography, to influence the development of these international instruments.  

Future of Transport 

To keep pace with developments the UK Government commissioned a regulatory review on the Future of Transport, including maritime autonomy and remote operation of vessels. The work identified changes that were required in primary legislation to allow the safe and environmentally sound operation of MASS in the UK, or for UK and British MASS. The results were published in September 2023 [] and highlighted a number of issues and areas for clarification in the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 (MSA 1995) that ought to be addressed to facilitate and enable the operation of these vessel types. 

MGN 664 & Workboat Code Edition 3 

The MCA continues to explore other means of domestic regulation to support industry in lieu of primary powers and the IMO Code. MGN 644 Amendment 1, which sets out the current domestic maritime safety framework for MASS, was recently amended to take onboard feedback from industry to simplify the language and streamline the process where possible. Further, the MCA have reviewed regulations such as the Workboat Code to enable and support operators with autonomous vessels of less than 24m. Workboat Code Edition 3 includes an Annex on a type of autonomous vessel, namely Remotely Operated Unmanned Vessels (an autonomous vessel with no persons on board which is operated from a location which is remote to the vessel). This Annex represents the first UK Code of Practice which sets out requirements for an autonomous vessel and came into force on 13th December 2023. 

The MCA have worked closely with industry throughout the development of the new Code and have listened to industry concerns around the introduction of the first regulation for remotely operated unmanned vessels. This engagement with industry will continue and influence the development of other regulatory frameworks for autonomous vessels, i.e. for the smallest MASS, which may not fit within the scope of the current Annex to Workboat Code.  


Gwilym Stone

As MCA Deputy Regulations & Standards, Gwilym leads the MCA’s regulatory policy teams covering Ship Standards, Navigation, and Seafarer Training and Wellbeing.  He joined the MCA in 2007 and from 2018 was Assistant Director for Ship Standards before taking up current responsibilities 2022.  

He has been closely involved in the MCA’s responses to autonomous vessels and the challenge of decarbonisation as the MCA works to reshape its regulations to fit the future needs of the industry.