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The UK MARLab Data Trial – What We Discovered

We would like to thank all of the MASS stakeholders who enthusiastically engaged with the MARLab data workstream commissioned by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). Solis Marine founding partner Ros Blazejczyk outlines some of the project milestones.

The Maritime Autonomy Regulation Lab (MARLab) is a collaboration between the MCA, the Department for Transport (DfT) and two contractors – Solis Marine Consultants/MariTrace and Policy Lab. The MARLab is based at the Marine Robotics Innovation Centre at NOC in Southampton, England.

The MARLab Data Workstream Project was carried out by Solis Marine in partnership with MariTrace. Its purpose was to review maritime autonomous surface ship (MASS) industry data requirements and then create a minimum viable product (MVP) in the form of an online data sharing platform to allow the sharing of government data with the industry. A testing and evaluation process was carried out to determine the value of the MVP to industry and the implications with regards to regulation.

The data workstream ran for 12 months until April 2020 to identify the connection between the value of maritime data held by the MCA and the requirements and aspirations of the MASS industry.

The concept of a data sharing portal was demonstrated to facilitate regulation and support the development of smart and autonomous shipping in a safe and progressive manner.

The creation of the MVP provided a live technical demonstration of the range of data sets available over and above the AIS data that was provided by the MCA for the experiment.

Choosing the right trial location

At an early stage we had to decide on the geographical location for the MVP digital test site which would allow a gap analysis study to focus on a specific region when considering the availability of various data sources.

From the outset, the MCA considered that a limited area would be chosen for the prototype MVP and Portland and Poole harbours were highlighted as preferred options due to existing connections with the port authorities.

The following advantages of Portland Harbour were identified:

  • The harbour is neatly defined by the harbour wall and is therefore a simpler area for mapping when compared to the more complex coastal geography of Poole.
  • The use of a smaller port like Portland allowed for the entire area to be covered by the data provided through the MVP, without data sets becoming unwieldy. This would have been significantly more challenging in larger and busier areas.
  • Portland sees a mixture of commercial and non-commercial users.
  • Portland is currently used by both commercial and military operations for MASS testing.
  • Access to open water for MASS testing is easier than other locations where a transit of up to an hour is required in company of a guard vessel before test areas are reached.

Portland has many different data sources to manage its port on a day to day basis. These were harmonised by MariTrace into a single portal alongside other data which was supplied by the MCA and other governmental and commercial bodies.

Evaluation: Who Took Part

Our evaluation exercise led to the creation of a map of MASS stakeholders in the UK.

Stakeholder feedback also made it possible to define the future potential of the data hub and its wider development beyond its current scope and format. This has helped prepare the way for the potential roll out of a connected, interactive portal where premium data is aggregated and then made available to aid the safe testing of MASS vessels in UK waters.

  • A broad mix of 67 stakeholders engaged with the project. They included MASS operators, academic institutions and research bodies, consultants, experts and port authorities.
  • 32 responded to an initial consultation phase which combined questionnaire responses with meetings.
  • 31 stakeholders were provided user credentials and logged in to the MARLab MVP with 13 of those providing detailed feedback.

From those interviews and meetings, all stakeholders responded by saying that they supported an MCA powered data hub to assist with the safe testing of MASS in UK waters.

All stakeholders believed the data hub would be of use to them if it were extended to cover the areas in which they are testing and operating.

Two requested that the current digital data hub remained available beyond the scope of this project in order to support a development project.

And a significant number who are currently developing MASS or data led platforms for the advanced marine technology and defence sectors, said they would like to see the portal extended from Portland to Plymouth, the south and east coasts.

The four most requested data types identified by them were included on the MARLab prototype data hub. Stakeholders also requested the widening of the scope of the data hub to include several other specific data types.

Towards Maritime 2050

As outlined in the Maritime 2050 Technology Route Map, the government vision is for the UK to be at the heart of a global maritime autonomy industry. Collaboration with industry, the provision of safe testing sites and support for innovation are key elements of this vision.

An innovative approach to regulation is required in the context of the smart and autonomous shipping industry and a key component to this will be the monitoring of MASS operations using automated processes that reduce the reliance on human resources.

The capture of data is crucial to monitor vessel operations, certification, insurance status and interactions with other marine users. Accurate data is vital to effective incident or “near miss” investigation and ensuring that lessons are learned to prevent future accidents.

The MARLab data workstream has demonstrated that the UK MASS industry sees real value in the sharing of maritime data to support safe testing and operation. They value the quality, accuracy, and reliability of data from assured sources and want to see this provided through a single gateway.

The MVP demonstrates how the sharing of open data can be achieved for a single location. The industry has engaged enthusiastically with the consultation process and stakeholders are keen to share suggestions for improvements for their future planning and operational data requirements.

An innovative regulatory framework for MASS is required and the capture of data on a large scale will be central to the implementation of this both domestically and internationally. The MARLab data hub could play a fundamental role in addressing this challenge.

A full report of our findings has now been submitted to the MCA for their assessment. In the meantime the data hub remains live until 31 May 2020.

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