Whilst the high investment in onshore and offshore infrastructure is undoubtedly a hurdle to autonomous technology being broadly adopted in the shipping industry, perhaps a more daunting obstacle is the unreadiness of the regulatory and legal systems which keep the shipping industry in check. The predicted degrees of ship automation and the timeframes to implementation can vary dramatically, but the simple fact is that the current legal framework lacks the basic language required to account for autonomous ships in any capacity.


The COLREGs, for example, outline the ‘rules of the road’, providing navigation instructions for ships to follow to prevent collisions at sea. But they specifically only apply when ‘one ship can be observed visually from the other’. Rule 5 (Lookout) insists above all on perception and judgement to assess the ‘special circumstances’ and to make a full appraisal of the risk of collision. Whilst it is feasible that a ship remotely operated or monitored from ashore could satisfy these conditions, it is difficult to see how a fully autonomous ship ever could. Not least because the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 requires (under Article 94) that each ship must have a master who is ‘in charge’ at all times.


From a human perspective, we must consider SOLAS. SOLAS sets minimum standards of safety at sea and includes an obligation for masters to assist a ship or person in distress. Regulation V/33 explicitly requires masters to deviate to save life. In some cases, autonomous ships may be better at responding to distress signals, but sometimes there can be no substitute for visual identification.

Other conventions

Theoretically, there needs to be a complete overhaul of the current framework by which the shipping industry operates, which will include the rewording of civil liability conventions (ie Salvage, Nairobi Wreck Removal, CLCs for oil pollution), the UNCLOS 1982 and all domestic shipping legislation (eg the Merchant Shipping Act in the UK).

P&I cover

There is work to be done from a P&I perspective too. Is an autonomous ship poolable? Should a remotely operated ship, controlled from on shore, be considered equivalent to an ROV operated from aboard a traditional ship and therefore excluded from pooling? Our view is that autonomous ships would not fall outside the definition of ‘eligible vessels’ for pooling purposes, nor would they be distinguishable from conventional manned ships for the purposes of the risks and liabilities excluded from cover.


There is no doubt that such amendments will take a considerable amount of time and effort, and with the Yara Birkeland on the brink of full autonomy, we must start soon. According to the UN, the Law of the Sea Convention 1982 was implemented as an update to the centuries old freedom-of-the-seas doctrine in order to account for ‘the technological changes that had altered man’s relationship to the oceans’. Now is the time to reevaluate our relationship once again.


Above article was initially published at the September edition of Standard P&I Club’s Technology Bulletin and is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission. 

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.

About Heather Maxwell, Senior Claims Executive, Europe Division at The Standard Club

Heather Maxwell is joined Charles Taylor plc. in October 2015 as a Claims Executive in the European Division. She was admitted as a Solicitor of England and Wales in September 2014 and she was trained with a leading shipping law firm in London from September 2012 – 2014.



Article source: Safety4Sea