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The Public and Private Sectors Are Ready to Unleash Unmanned Maritime Vehicles

I. Introduction

Are unmanned maritime vehicles the next frontier in autonomous technology? While unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and connected autonomous vehicles (CAV) have received considerable recognition in the news and media, unmanned maritime vehicles (UMV) have not. That is beginning to change, in part, because the defense, commercial, and scientific sectors have realized the potential for UMVs.  As these vessels enter the water, it is important for stakeholders — manufacturers, insurers, consumers, and operators — to understand the governing authorities to avoid or minimize future conflicts.

II. UMV Technology Is Developing Rapidly

The U.S. Navy’s Sea Hunter exemplifies the unbounded nature of UMV. The Navy recognized the promise of UMVs years ago and partnered with Leidos to develop unmanned vessels for a variety of maritime applications. Leidos then designed and built the Sea Hunter, a 132 - foot - long Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle. In 2019, the Sea Hunter distinguished itself from traditional warships when it became the first ship to travel roundtrip from San Diego to Hawaii — over 5,000 nautical miles — without onboard personnel. Gerry Fasano, President of Leidos Defense group, said of the achievement, “The recent long-range mission is the first of its kind and demonstrates to the U.S. Navy that autonomy technology is ready to move from the developmental and experimental stages to advanced mission testing.”

The Sea Hunter was just the beginning. The Navy is developing Sea Hunter 2 and recently issued a twenty - five - year Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap. And more countries are investing in UMVs. Japan, Singapore, and South Korea have announced plans to utilize UMVs to patrol Indo - Pacific waters for surveillance, mine detection, illegal fishing, and human trafficking. The Sea Hunter milestone coupled with global state investment suggests that UMVs are cementing their place on the high seas. 

As governments continue to utilize UMVs, so too will commercial actors; there is already a high commercial demand for UMVs. Over the last decade, there has been a shortage of seafarers to meet increased global trade.[1]  UMVs obviate this problem because they do not require a seafarer to operate. UMVs promise to ameliorate labor shortages and decrease labor costs through autonomous operation. Additionally, more shipyards will be equipped to construct UMVs. UMVs are smaller than traditional ships because they do not have to dedicate space for personnel onboard, which enables smaller shipyards to construct them. The smaller size coupled with more market participants substantially reduces the cost to build ships and increases output. 

III. UMV Regulations Are Coming

While UMV uses are clear, their regulations are not. Like other autonomous technologies, UMVs continue to develop in ways unanticipated by the original drafters of maritime rules and regulations. UMVs do not clearly fall under the category of “ships” under existing regulations and conventions. While the label appears intuitive, the framework governing ships must be amended to include UMVs. For example, Rule 5 of the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea requires every vessel to maintain a proper lookout to avoid collision. It remains unclear whether optical and acoustical sensors alone — without a human operator — could satisfy Rule 5 as written.  Similarly, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea mandates that ships be able to assist in rescue operations. UMVs, by design, are not yet suited to comply with those provisions. 

The International Maritime Organization recognized the tensions between UMVs and existing regulations. In 2018, the International Maritime Organization began conducting a regulatory scoping exercise to study how existing regulations (including the regulations identified above) might apply to ships with varying degrees of automation. Specifically, the International Maritime Organization is examining: (1) existing regulations that, as drafted, preclude unmanned ships from operating; (2) regulations that have no application to UMVs; and (3) regulations that do not specifically preclude UMVs but may need to be amended.[2] The regulatory scoping exercise addresses safety, security, liability, and compensation for damage, interactions with ports, pilotage, responses to incidents, and protecting the marine environment. The regulatory scoping exercise is a great first step to allow UMVs to operate. But the regulations must continue to develop alongside the technology to ensure success for all stakeholders.

The CAV/UAV team at Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP is continuing to monitor these developments and is available to advise on the changing UMV landscape. 

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[1]  see Michal Chwedczuk, Analysis of the Legal Status of Unmanned Commercial Vessels in U.S. Admiralty and Maritime Law, 47 J. Mar. L. & Com. 123, 124 (2016)

[2] Natalie Klein, Maritime Autonomous Vehicles Within the International Law Framework to Enhance Maritime Security, 95 Int'l L. Stud. 244, 245 (2019)