Automation and liability in maritime law

Transferring the control of a vessel to an artificial intelligence operating system or converting the vessel to operate via remote control gives rise to legal problems that can only be tackled from an international perspective.

Although these vessels aim to cure human error (the principal cause of maritime accidents) they share the fallibility of their human creators. They can also be the victims of cyber-attacks, a threat that will undoubtedly form part of the legal catalogue of “perils of the seas”.

Partners Olivia Delagrange and Jose Pellicer from our Madrid office recently analysed the impact of this evolving technology, which they consider would have been entered into a legal map marked “Hic Sunt Dracones” (here be dragons) by medieval cartographers.

Highlights of their report include:

What is automated maritime navigation?

Automated maritime navigation is navigation that is carried out, to some extent, by way of control systems and artificial intelligence. The presence of control systems on board is not a new phenomenon in the maritime navigation world; for decades merchant vessels have been undergoing an unstoppable process of automation that has drastically reduced the number of crew.

Automation scale

Level 1 - manual, crewed and assisted

Navigated manually with crew members on board assisted by automatic machines.

Level 2 - automated by remote control

A manually navigated vessel which can be changed to remote control as required with minimal crew or operated exclusively by remote control (in which case, the on-board crew are replaced by a land based crew or crew on board another vessel).

Level 3 - autonomous

The vessel takes its own decisions by way of an algorithmic system of artificial intelligence.

Distinction between automated vessel, autonomous vessel and an unmanned vessel

  • Automated vessel - a general concept for all vessels whose functionality have been totally or partially automated (Levels 1, 2 and 3)
  • Autonomous vessel - a specific concept to define a vessel that has been totally automated (Level 3)
  • Unmanned vessel - a singular concept that covers all automated vessels without a crew on board.

Automated maritime navigation by remote control

Information about the vessels’ surroundings in real time that allows an “obstacle map” to be created is provided to the remote operator by a sophisticated combination of sensors (such as HD cameras, IR Thermic Cameras, conventional radars, short reach radars, LIDAR laser scanners, microphones, GPS, AIS and ECDIS).

Autonomous maritime navigation

The autonomous vessel represents the final evolutionary level, which is when the making of nautical decisions has become totally automated, with no human interaction required.

With the technology currently available, the fully autonomous vessel is only viable on the high seas or in areas of scarce traffic because it is not capable of adequately distinguishing between the obstacles that are present, nor predicting the risks or tracing anti-collision routes fully in complex port scenarios.

Legal impact

Existing regulation does not imagine anything other than a crewed vessel and there is currently no provision for control by either a remote crew or a machine.

Vessels without a crew would not be able to comply with current requirements, such as providing assistance to people in danger on the seas and advising of the presence of stowaways and providing them with the care, accommodation or medical and legal assistance that is required.

Navigation records will have to be completed remotely and sent to a confidential database to be made available by the maritime authorities and obligations such as seaworthiness of the vessel, loading and unloading or to deliver cargo will be transferred to land based port staff of the ship-owner.

Liability

The number of potential liable parties will increase. These will include the remote operators and manufacturers, suppliers and/or installers of the hardware or software.

Liability for damage caused by an accident of an automated vessel
Level Cause Liable party

Remote navigation

Manned/unmanned

Human error in handling

Remote crew or back-up crew
Human error in software/hardware maintenance Shipowner, shipyard, manufacturer
Defective hardware/software Manufacturer, installer
Action of a third party Third party

Autonomous navigation

Manned

Human error in handling Back-up crew
Human error in software/hardware maintenance Shipowner, shipyard, manufacturer
Defective hardware/software Manufacturer, installer
Action of a third party Third party

Autonomous navigation

Unmanned

Human error in software/hardware maintenance Shipowner, shipyard, manufacturer
Defective hardware/software Manufacturer, installer
Action of a third party Third party

The potential vulnerability and fragility of the systems required for automation - both from cyber risks and traditional “perils of the seas” - leads us to recommend that, at least in the early transitional stages, all autonomous vessels are accompanied by on board crew.

Read the full report here in Spanish and in English.

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Read other items in the Marine Brief - September 2018