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The Belgian North Sea becomes a testing ground for autonomous and unmanned ships |  interior

The Belgian North Sea becomes a testing ground for autonomous and unmanned ships | interior

From July 1, the Belgian North Sea will become a testing ground for innovative companies working in the field of autonomous navigation and remote control of underwater autonomous ships and ships. Then the Royal Decree of North Sea Minister Vincent van Keukenborn (Open Vld) will then enter into force, which establishes a legal framework for pilot projects with these ships.




On Tuesday, the minister visited the Center for Marine Robotics and De Blauwe Cluster in Ostend, which are helping to develop many of these projects. He then hosted a webinar in which the Belgian expertise and legal framework was presented to an international audience within the IMO framework. Belgian shipowners also responded positively and announced that they would set up a “research center for unmanned navigation”.

The current regulations currently state that “every vessel must have a good watch at all times by looking and listening in order to make a full assessment of the situation and the risk of collision”. This means that by law someone must always be present on the navigation bridge on every ship. Van Queckenborn explains that an exception is now provided for unmanned ships.

For an unmanned vessel, it must be a sea vessel whose unmanned navigation bridge can be periodically or during the entire voyage. This definition includes (underwater) ships that are remotely controlled or controlled by artificial intelligence systems. The field of application is very broad. This is to maintain flexibility and make room for experimentation and research. In addition, there is still no international legal framework that defines drones.

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The new procedure states that the minister can issue a permit for a certain period. This license specifies the safety requirements that an unmanned vessel must comply with. To date, separate permits must be issued for each test of an unmanned vessel. In the Belgian Ship Registry, a new special register of unmanned ships is provided. This means that unmanned ships can sail under the Belgian flag. Registration in this registry is free. Unmanned ships registered abroad are also eligible for a Belgian license.

The new regulations apply to three types of unmanned vessels: the unmanned surface vessel (USV), remotely operated vehicles (ROV) or control room-operated robots ideal for conducting targeted research on the sea floor, and the autonomous underwater vehicle (ROV) ( AUV) that can perform autonomous tasks underwater.

Picture for clarification. The new regulations apply, among other things, to remotely operated vehicles or robots that are operated from a control room and are ideal for conducting targeted research on the sea floor. © Shutterstock