Autonomous Vessels: Legal, Regulatory, and Insurance Issues


Alan M. Weigel and Thomas H. Belknap Jr.

The maritime industry is currently experiencing a technological sea change resulting from the development of advanced automation on unmanned surface vessels. Once thought to be decades away from incorporation into the maritime transportation network, advanced automation is already emerging as a viable alternative for some segments of the industry as a way to reduce operational costs, improve safety, and increase efficiency. This new and disruptive technology, however, brings with it unique legal, regulatory, and insurance questions—the answers to which have been elusive.

The Legal Landscape

Over the past five years, many jurisdictions in the United States have implemented regulations governing the use of unmanned aircraft and drones. As a result, there have been more than 50 cases in the United States involving unmanned aircraft operations. During the same period, however, except for cases involving unmanned barges, there have been no cases in the United States referring to unmanned surface/subsurface ships or vehicles.

Because U.S. regulators and the courts have not considered issues involving unmanned and autonomous surface or subsurface vehicles, there is no clear legal guidance for their operation. The cases involving manned vessels and even unmanned barges provide imperfect analogies. Thus, clear operating regulations and legal guidelines remain to be developed.

What Are Unmanned Autonomous Vessels?

One of the challenges in addressing new operating regulations for automated or unmanned vessels is nomenclature. There is no universally accepted name for unmanned maritime systems. Various designations have been proposed, such as Unmanned Surface Vessels, Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships, Autonomous Surface Vehicles, and Unmanned Maritime Vehicles. Such systems also have become commonly referred to as maritime “drones” or even “smart ships.”

The level of autonomy utilized in the vessel’s operating systems is one useful classification method. Lloyd’s Register, for example, has set out guidance for marine autonomous operations. The guidance describes autonomy levels ranging from “AL 1,” which uses autonomous systems to assist on board crew with decision support, through to “AL 6,” which denotes a fully autonomous ship with no access and no on-board supervision required during a mission. What is clear, however, is that in many cases, autonomous does not always equal unmanned. Continue reading “Autonomous Vessels: Legal, Regulatory, and Insurance Issues”

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In the event of an incident, please contact any of our MERT members listed in red below.

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CO-CHAIR, MARITIME INDUSTRY TEAM Continue reading “Blank Rome’s Maritime Industry Team”