Autonomous collision avoidance regulation compliance - the future for ship navigation safety and efficiency

Planet earth blue longitude and latitude grid



 A great deal of the hardware and software that is needed to complete our autonomous challenge, is available off the shelf. It could be argued that it may be possible to arrange for autonomous travel without developing dedicated hard and software, using model radio control techniques as follows:-


1.  Autopilot steers correct heading at all times (even when ship not moving) waypoint to waypoint.

2.  Motors engaged at all times subject to proximity sensors all clear (subject to 5 below).

3.  Sensors give all clear - motor drive engaged subject to energy management.

4.  Storm sensors disengage 2. above (stop motors) and engage degrees of lock down.

5.  Collision avoidance software overrides 1. (ship performs avoidance moves as per COLREGS below)

6.  Autopilot can be reprogrammed with a new mission via satellite link; i.e. monitored.

7.  Manual steering (drone mode) override disengages 1.

8.  International monitoring system, warning ships so equipped of developing situation.


Five above could be achieved with existing navigation and radio control equipment and software, but in that case the level of artificial intelligence (AI) would be low - in our opinion, insufficient to the task of advancing marine navigation - as compared to a system imbued with a high level of AI. The positioning of sensors about a ship, and the mix of sensors are the key to success, allied to the high level AI that we have set ourselves as the challenge. 


There are long and short range sensors (radar, laser, infra red and optical recognition), each having their separate circuits for Class 3 type multiple redundancies. The present proposal is for a physical switching system (as per 1-8 above) for the eventual development of a cost effective solid state AI package, as and when funding might be achieved for SNAV.


Such a system will benefit from a program for the sensors and steering, to increase system reliability for general navigation use. The challenge is simple:-



Now imagine 


Imagine if you will, an able bodied ships captain of high intelligence. Imagine that he commands a ship equipped with the very latest navigational equipment. Imagine that at his peak, including if you will, a crew that is also able bodied and at their peak. This is the current state of navigation and for long we have relied upon such men. This is the benchmark that SNAV must meet and exceed. Now imagine how long you think that this crew operating at peak condition can keep that level of alertness going.


Now imagine if you will, a ship with a robot captain that can see with 5 times human clarity. Imagine a robot captain that can calculate and recalculate its ships position several times a second, every second without fail, that knows the state of its ship intimately to the last detail, and that using this knowledge, can predict in real time the performance of the ship. Imagine also that the robot captain does not suffer from delays in computing navigational input data, to effecting logical instruction - and never tires.






Complying with the existing rules of the road is a priority if autonomous ships are to gain favour with the authorities and advance the art of navigation. After that stage is achieved, we might then see how new technology (autonomy) might improve safety at sea. Thus the basis for our software development (@ 5 above) are these internationally accepted rules of navigation at sea:-


Rule 1  - Application (rules apply to all vessels)

Rule 2  - Responsibility (no excuses for non compliance)

Rule 3  - General definitions (vessel includes all water craft)

Rule 4  - Application (in any condition of visibility)

Rule 5  - Look-out (sight & hearing at all times)

Rule 6  - Safe speed (conditions determining)

Rule 7  - Risk of collision (radar & compass bearings + Snav improvements)

Rule 8  - Action to avoid collision (positive duty in good time)

Rule 9  - Narrow channels (keeping as far away as possible anchor avoidance)

Rule 10 - Traffic separation schemes (no relief of any other rule)

Rule 11 - Application (in sight of another vessel)
Rule 12 - Sailing Vessels (duty to avoid each other)
Rule 13 - Overtaking (duty to keep out of way of other)

Rule 14 - Head-on situation (power vessels alter course to starboard - pass on port)
Rule 15 - Crossing situation (no crossing)
Rule 16 - Action by give-way vessel (early and substantial action)
Rule 17 - Action by stand-on vessel (keeping course and speed)
Rule 18 - Responsibilities between vessels (power boat duty to avoid unmanned or sailing)

Rule 19 - Conduct of vessels in restricted visibility (safe speed & avoidance)
Rule 20 - Application (all weather requirement)
Rule 21 - Definitions (lighting definitions)
Rule 22 - Visibility of lights (visibility distances)
Rule 23 - Power-driven vessels underway (lighting)

Rule 24 - Towing and pushing (masthead lights)

Rule 25 - Sailing vessels underway and vessels under oars (mast, side, stern lights)
Rule 26 - Fishing Vessels (lighting)

Rule 27 - Vessels not under command or restricted in their ability to manoeuvre (lighting and shapes)

Rule 28 - Vessels constrained by their draught (lighting)
Rule 29 - Pilot vessels (lighting)
Rule 30 - Anchored vessels and vessels aground (lighting)

Rule 32 - Definitions (whistle definitions)

Rule 33 - Equipment for sound signals (bells and whistles)

Rule 34 - Manoeuvring and warning signals (whistle blasts and light flashes for direction)

Rule 35 - Sound signals in restricted visibility (fog, 2 sec blasts)
Rule 36 - Signals to attract attention (Light and Sound)

Rule 37 - Distress signals (prescribed and Snav)


These rules can be subdivided into:-


A. Optical, B. Audible and C. Electronic - compliance requirements, D. Steerage action to avoid collision, E Speed reduction/acceleration/stop as reasonable as conditions dictate.


The requirements of 'A-C' are relatively easy to satisfy. That required to ensure 'D' is not so easy to arrange, to avoid collision.





We propose an overlap of sensors to provide information of the real world in real time as follows:-


* Sensors sensitive to 0-30 meters proximity.

* Sensors sensitive to 0-1000 meters proximity.

* Sensors sensitive to 0-3000 meters proximity.

* Sensors capable of color differentiation.

* Sensors capable of identifying sounds and sound direction.

* Range sensitive heat sensors.

* Subsurface equivalents of 1-3 and 5.


We propose sensor positioning as per the following diagrams:






The following diagrams show the logical switching sequence to achieve 1. - 8. above. Ultimately, the vessel is controlled via satellite uplink radio control. There are three main control circuits: Autonomous, Drone and Manual. These are selectable from mission control. The three main circuits engage the self-managed sub control blocks (which are autonomous fiefdoms in their own right). Autonomous mode may only proceed with the all clear from the Collision Avoidance Module.



Block diagram showing circuits for: Autonomous, Manual and Drone modes






Autonomous mode  _______ select to engage fully automatic ship control

Manual mode         _______ select this to allow an onboard crew to take control

Drone mode           _______ selection for controlling the ship remotely via satellite

Collision avoidance  ________ disengages autopilot when danger arises to apply new course






Key future technology is the dynamic routing of ships. If all ships in an area were to sail with a "verified and identified active route" that will enhance safety, security and the environment. The Snav system should be backwards compatible for the transition from 'legacy' systems - of which below are some examples.

About safety: Ships will distribute their active route to "close quarter" ships via AIS (Automatic Identification System). Technically this will be performed by "AIS interrogation".  The interrogator ship will get the active route 5 nmi ahead. The complete active route will be communication secured by crypto technology, but the first 5 nmi of the route will be open transmission following the guidelines of today’s AIS.  


The STCC will active control the ensemble of all routes in an area and transmission of routes on high sea will be performed by via secure satellite communication.

About security: If ships divert from the “verified and identified active route” without notice or choose to not participate in the system this will generate a notice of concern which could be handled by security bodies outside traffic control centers.

About environment: Ships using environmentally optimized active routes can minimize their carbon footprint but also go around sensitive areas - planned in advance.

Humans suffer from boredom and fatigue, robots do not.


Imagine - the human crews of these two ships lapsed in concentration. An onboard monitoring system does not take naps or need to use the toilet. It does not telephone the missus or call the kids. It just keeps on working 24/7 to protect the investment of fleet operators and save lives..





When large cargo ships traverse narrow waterways, the careful management and navigation of their passage is critical to maximizing efficiency, safety and security. The Center for Navigation at the Volpe Center has developed several systems that improve navigation in shipping channels. In December 2000, the Center completed the installation of a state-of-the-art system in the Panama Canal. Subsequently, similar systems were installed in Central American ports to restore navigation capabilities that were destroyed by hurricanes. Building on these successes, the Center designed and implemented a comprehensive vessel communications and tracking network that will identify and track all commercial vessels on the Saint Lawrence Seaway.


The network, based on automatic identification system (AIS) technology, provides signal coverage from Montreal to eastern Lake Erie. The system enables automatic vessel position reporting from vessels equipped with AIS transponders to the Seaway Traffic Management System. In turn, the shoreside AIS network provides vessel traffic services information, such as wind speeds, water levels, visibility conditions, and lock schedules to transiting ships.


The project was developed by the Center for Navigation under the sponsorship of a consortium composed of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, the Canadian St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, The Shipping Federation of Canada, and the Canadian Shipowners Association. The U.S. and Canadian Seaway agencies jointly operate the Seaway's locks and channels, and also provide traffic management for the waterway.



The vessel management system is one of the important up gradations that has taken place in the shipping sector. The vessel management system uses advanced technological equipments to monitor and manage the vehicular traffic in the oceanic and sea waters. Working on the basis of GPS and other gadgets like a computer for the purpose of display, vessel management has become a very integral part of the naval system without which there could be a lot of problems pertaining to management of the ships and other naval vessels.

The provision of GPS is a continuous feed that takes place in a vessel management system. Because of the facility of GPS enabled in a vessel management system, it becomes easier for ships to rely on the accuracy of other ships in the water. It is a known fact that the GPS is such that it does not comes under the influence of any weather problems or atmospheric deviations. This being the case, the effectiveness of a vessel management system becomes even more believable especially if there is a situation like fog or storms or gales in the middle of an ocean or a sea.

The computer which is used for the purpose of display is enabled with a system known as Geographic Information System (GIS) that pinpoints the location of other naval vessels with a virtual replica of the vessels’ geographic location. This means that there is a virtual simulation unlike mere theoretical reference to a ship’s location which could be confusing especially in the above specified problematic situations. The virtual simulation allows a ship’s captain to take notice of the specified geographic pointers and steer clear of any ship incoming in its direct route.

Additionally, for the purposes of managing vessels efficiently and as a medium of communication with other vessels and if necessary, the coast guard, the vessel management system uses the aid of radio frequencies, satellite channels and mobile phone connectivity services. However it has to be noted that these mentioned services are bound by the limitations of network and connectivity. But at the same time, it cannot be denied that these gadgets guarantee a very reliable source of communication for the vessel management system.



MEDWAY PORTS UK - Marine Vessel Traffic Services

Medway Ports' Traffic Services (VTS) continuously monitor the River. A team of three, including a Class 1 pilot and Master Mariner acting as duty port manager on behalf of the Harbour Master, are on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

With the help of an Automatic Identification System (AIS) which has been fully integrated into the VTS system and radar information received by Port Control, VTS operators have a complete picture of activities along the 27 miles of the River Medway under their jurisdiction.

Medway VTS is able to provide radio and radar assistance to vessels navigating the River Medway and its approaches. Information relating to shipping movements, navigational channels, meteorological and tidal conditions can be obtained using the call sign "Medway VTS". VTS also keeps a continuous radio watch on International VHF channels 16, 74, 73 and 22.



NORCONTROL - Real-time fleet control

Whether the requirement is for surveillance of coastal areas, large ports, small ports, rivers or offshore installations a VTMIS5060 can be supplied to meet that need by NORCONTROL. Each VTMIS5060 is configured to suit the customer’s specific needs. In most cases these needs are met with a standard off-the-shelf VTMIS5060 module.


The purpose of a VTMIS is to provide the operator with a clear and concise real-time portrayal of vessel movements and interactions in the Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) Area. The information provided by the VTMIS must allow the operator to:

1. Provide the required level of VTS: Information, Assistance or Organization
2. Enhance safety of life and property
3. Protect the environment
4. Reduce the risk associated with marine operations
5. Enhance efficiency of vessel movements and port marine resources
6. Distribute VTS related information
7. Provide Search and Rescue assistance
8. Record VTS data for administrative purposes, analysis of incidents and planning

VTMIS5060 fulfils this purpose by processing and presenting information in a manner which enables the operator to obtain a clear and accurate picture of the vessel traffic situation, quickly understand and assess situations, make appropriate decisions and take appropriate action where necessary.

Port Management Information System (PIMS)

The Port Management Information System (PMIS) is an SQL database system that extends the data handling capacity of any VTS system and transforms it into a true VTMIS. The PMIS uses the latest in “web-based” application technology to deliver a simple and intuitive user interface.



Another accident at sea, a collision that could have been avoided


Imagine - these ships had no robot captain to warn the humans onboard as to the consequences of their failure to react to a developing situation. "Of all the oceans in all the world you just happened to be cruising in mine." Quote: Captain Humphrey Bogart



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The Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals and Prevention of Collisions) Regulations 1996

Section 4. The application of these Rules is limited through the Regulations, to the vessels or ships as defined in the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. Application to craft falling outside of this definition e.g. WIGs, personal water craft and others; will therefore be subject to a Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) opinion of what it considers to be good conduct and practice by the MSN 1781 (M+ F).



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