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Autonomous ships: from remotely operated to full autonomy – are these vessels in law?

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Natalie Campbell

Autonomous ships: from remotely operated to full autonomy – are these vessels in law? ***
by Natalie Campbell

University of Bristol, Barrister, Lincoln’s Inn*

Maritime objects, both with and without the traditional appearance of ships, have been developed with varying levels of autonomy, from remote operation of the navigation to being fully autonomous. These range from trials of maritime autonomous surface ship (MASS) vessels to autonomous yachting race marks and remotely operated vehicles, but the discussion extends to the old practice of single-handed sailing relying on autopilot. Traditionally crewed vessels have been defined in common law and the operation of those vessels has been regulated by statute incorporating regulatory conventions under UNCLOS and the International Maritime Organization. Whilst the degrees of automation have been absorbed into the shipping industry,
it is important to establish which of these automated objects are recognised as vessels operating within established maritime law.


Vessels without a crew on board, autonomous or robot vessels, are currently being tested with a view to introduce them for commercial use. Whilst autonomous technology has been absorbed into and embraced by the maritime shipping industry, with the IMO having commenced steps to incorporate the technology into its legal framework with the introduction of the term ‘maritime autonomous surface ship’ (MASS), it is still necessary to identify autonomous or robotic objects as vessels for the purpose of shipping law. This poses the question of whether an object that appears to be a vessel and behaves like a vessel, although it has no crew physically positioned on board, is a vessel at law. This is a not a new question given that similar conditions have existed for many years on singlehanded yachts relying on autopilot to navigate whilst the sailor sleeps, such as those racing in the Vendée Globe regatta. However, this question also applies to the recently developed autonomous race mark. These race marks are buoys which can move themselves to and maintain station at a geographic position: ‘We’ve taken the “a” out of the mark set boat1 and turned it into a bot (as well as the “a” for aggravation).’ 2

This was part of the sales pitch from the website of a company which has developed an autonomous racing mark buoy which can lay itself, the autonomous buoy using GPS positioning and propellers to maintain position, thereby removing the necessity for a vessel to lay the buoy needed as a racing mark in regattas. This selling point highlights two issues. First, does an inanimate object which is developed to move across water autonomously become a vessel? Secondly, if an object can be made to move across water, does this constitute navigation for the purposes of identifying that autonomous or robotic object as a vessel? In short, to what extent can robots be recognised as vessels?

For a British maritime autonomous object to operate as a ship in international waters under international conventions, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulatory conventions, then it must be defined as a vessel in English law. An autonomous object could operate solely in national waters, such as the Yara Birkeland operating in Norwegian waters, and be identified as a vessel in national law but not to the extent of complying with shipping regulations, then the law of torts will be the first avenue to resolve any liabilities with third parties. Similarly, autonomous objects used on water which are clearly not identifiable as vessels in law would also be liable in tort rather than under maritime statute law.

  • The author would like to thank Ian Lovering of Ashdown Marine.
    1 This refers to a vessel used to set marks to create a race course on the water for vessels
  • 2 www.marksetbot.com


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