Maritime Law in the Wake of the Unmanned Vessel 

August, 2017 - Espen Tøndel

Unmanned vessels are no longer a futuristic concept, but a reality. In Norway, several projects involving the testing of unmanned vessels are currently ongoing. It is only a question of time before we see unmanned vessels operating in international waters.

In this article we will first look at ongoing projects in Norway and the challenges faced from a national law perspective. Secondly, we will provide an overview of the legal implications for international maritime law, in particular the regulatory framework established through the IMO conventions. Finally we will briefly look at how the unmanned vessel will affect private maritime law, including transportation of goods at sea and insurance. 

Maritime law is in many ways a conservative area of law, were traditions are not easily discarded. Even so, maritime law has over the years proved itself flexible and able to adapt to face technological developments.

The master and the crew have traditionally been considered instrumental in ensuring the safe operation of the vessel at sea, and many provisions in the maritime law regulatory framework seeks so achieve this by imposing duties and responsibility on the master and the crew. The introduction of unmanned vessels represents a significant deviation in the operation of the vessel, and will therefore inevitably require careful evaluation of the existing legal framework to make sure that appropriate regulations are in place to ensure safe operation at sea for all vessels, whether manned or unmanned.  

An unmanned vessel is in simple terms a vessel which is not operated by an on board master and crew, and covers all vessels from those remotely operated to the fully autonomous. The different categories of unmanned vessels imply different challenges from a regulatory perspective, in particular with respect to the line of control over the vessel. The legal framework will therefore have to be flexible so as to ensure that the objectives of the various regulations are protected, regardless of how the vessel is controlled and operated.

The introduction of the unmanned vessel and the general digitalization of shipping, also begs the question of whether some of the institutions in maritime law, such as the role of the flag state, are appropriate for meeting the new risks and challenges.


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