Regulation lack hurting unmanned vessels

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United Kingdom-headquartered law firm Clyde and Co. and that country’s Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST) recently surveyed industry attitudes toward ship automation in a new report.
A survey of 220 marine industry executives worldwide found that there is a lack of clarity on a range of issues on the governance of unmanned ships, including collisions and insurance.

Clyde and Co. also found that the industry believes it is unprepared for the new technology.

Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of the executives believe that their industry is not at all prepared in terms of infrastructure requirements for unmanned ships.

Half (51 percent) think that crews currently do not have the skill sets needed to operate and maintain such ships.
Over two-thirds (68 percent) of survey respondents fear that unmanned ships present a greater cyber security risk than traditional ships.


According to international shipping law, vessels must be properly crewed, which means that unmanned ships are not currently permitted to enter international waters.

The International Maritime Organization announced in June that it would begin to consider updating the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (Solas) to allow unmanned cargo ships to travel between countries.

Also this year, the Comité Maritime International (CMI) established a working group on maritime law for unmanned craft to consider how international conventions and regulations can be adapted to provide for the operation of unmanned vessels on the high seas.

The report finds that another key issue is the availability of insurance cover for unmanned ships.

Four out of every five (80 percent) survey respondents think it is unclear how insurers would approach the new technology.

To effect insurance, the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI) has been discussing the implications of the new technology, and it expects unmanned vessels to change the landscape of the traditional maritime insurance industry.

Patrick Murphy, partner at Clyde and Co, said: “The current concern for the marine industry is that few insurers are yet in a position where they can advise on how they are approaching insurance cover for unmanned ships.”

“This is, perhaps, unsurprising, given the lack of legal framework on which to assess and base liability. Insurers are reacting to new cyberrisks, so I would expect them to be able to underwrite risks relating to unmanned ships assuming the liability and regulatory framework can be sorted out.

Another partner, Joe Walsh, said: “Marine executives are right to be concerned about the potentially increased threat of a cyber-attack as a result of the use of unmanned ships.”

“However, it is probably worth mentioning that the maritime industry as a whole has been criticized for being a bit slow in reacting to existing cyberthreats, including fully crewed vessels and that the biggest threat to any organization’s cybersecurity posture is still, in fact, human error.

“It is therefore possible that a transition to unmanned ships might actually reduce an organization’s profile and exposure to cyberrisks. The cyberthreat should certainly be taken seriously, but it should not put the brakes on further exploration of the viability of unmanned ships.”

“The present state of Solas and collision-avoidance regulations are being overtaken by and holding back potentially industry-changing technology from being developed and implemented.

“Fortunately, the IMO, CMI and other industry interests appear to have recognized that there is a real appetite to test the water with unmanned ships at a commercial level.

“The industry will quickly need some legal clarity around cyberliability and collision regulations before any groundbreaking progress can be made.”

David Loosley, chief executive at IMarEST, said: “Technology is today advancing at an unprecedented rate and promises a host of new solutions for the maritime industry in terms of improved efficiency, safety and environmental performance.

“However, we should not be blinded by the benefits.

“We must also remain alert to the potential risks. This joint research report examines these vulnerabilities and how they might be addressed and is an important starting point for the industry to begin preparing for the future.”

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