Marine autonomous vehicles and the law: Assessing risks and liability


Autonomous surface vehicles (ASVs) are here, but not all the laws are. It’s a simple fact that these waterborne vehicles are extremely popular, and more are being built every day. They can steer themselves and adjust their speed with their own onboard computers. Some ASVs need a little human help, though; they are semi-autonomous. Others are completely reliant upon constant remote control. Some are small and slow while others are large and fast, and plans for very large ASV “ships” might be coming sooner than you think. The small and slow ones pose little threat to commercial shipping and recreational boaters, although the large and fast ones can be a bit more dangerous. All of these types of ASVs are operating right now, as they can save you a lot of money if used correctly.

The small ASVs seem to be the most popular way of saving money for now. If you can buy a 1-meter-long ASV that can survey the floor topography of a body of water and collect other valuable data without hiring a large ship and crew, then it’s worth owning and operating. Most of these small ASVs operate only by remote control even though we still call them ASVs. You don’t need a lot of expensive sensors and electronics to avoid collisions, either — you just need some basic sensors like cameras and a global positioning system (GPS) to let the operator know where the ASV is. They start off at about $5,000 and climb in price from there. The liability to operate them can be low, too, if they are used the right way.

Lt. Chris Rabalais of the U.S. Coast Guard shared some opinions about these small ASVs. If you’re operating them in the 100 percent remotely controlled mode, you’re basically the responsible skipper even though you may be standing on the shore. Therefore, make sure that you operate them according to the vessel Navigation Rules. If you do get involved in a collision, your vehicle probably won’t cause a great deal of damage to the other vessel involved. The lieutenant also pointed out the fact that there’s probably not going to be a big oil spill of the type usually associated with other vessel collisions. So, if you always have immediate control of these small ASVs and operate them in a safe manner according to the rules, you’re probably not going to incur a great deal of criminal or civil liability.

Rabalais had something to say about the larger ASVs as well. If you intend to operate a larger ASV in U.S. waters in the 100 percent autonomous or semi-autonomous mode, he recommends an early and open communications relationship between the builder or operator and Coast Guard personnel. They can save you a great deal of time by avoiding potential ASV deployment delays, all while helping you legally and safely accomplish your goals. They can recommend safety modifications that will satisfy their requirements and even have the authority to authorize an automatic identification system (AIS) for your ASV on a case-by-case basis. AIS for all ASVs is still under review by the Coast Guard, the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities (IALA), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Let’s say that you did cooperate with the Coast Guard and your ASV got involved in a collision anyway. If the Coast Guard writes a casualty report or is called to testify, it’s probably going to go a lot better for you even if they do find you at fault on one point or more. It still would be better to have them say that you complied with all of their requirements, and that they gave you permission to operate your large ASV with legal AIS installed. How soon should you initiate contact with the Coast Guard? Rabalais recommends that you start a dialog even if all you have is just an idea and a set of plans.

So, what is the difference between a large ASV and a small one? Right now that’s up to each individual Coast Guard captain of the port in U.S. jurisdictional waters. It certainly has not been legally determined yet internationally, either. I do have my own guidelines that are based on established law, though. The following Navigation Rules give me a legal foundation to define a smaller, less hazardous “vessel” and a slower, less hazardous speed for these “vessels.” I then extrapolate that to “vehicles.”

Rule 23(d)(ii) is the whole basis for delineating large from small and fast from slow. It states, “A power-driven vessel less than 7 meters in length whose maximum speed does not exceed 7 knots may in lieu of the lights prescribed in paragraph (a) of this rule exhibit an all-round white light and shall, if practicable, also exhibit sidelights.”

Capt. Marc Deglinnocenti, left, and John Tamplin, chief executive officer of Seafloor Systems, deploy an autonomous EchoBoat for a maximum weight test at the company’s facility in Shingle Springs, Calif.

Capt. Marc Deglinnocenti

You might immediately think that this rule talks about lights of vessels and has nothing to do with requirements for ASVs. The point that I make is that it has already been determined and established within international and inland maritime law that vessels slower than 7 knots and shorter than 7 meters in length are less dangerous than ones exceeding those parameters. That’s a simple fact, because the vessels under those two “7s” have fewer requirements. I didn’t come up with those facts. Other people a lot smarter and more qualified than me around the world came up with those facts. Those people already argued those facts and agreed upon them. I’m merely pointing them out. There are also more laws to corroborate this theory.

Rule 25(d)(i) states that a sailing vessel less than 7 meters in length also has light exceptions. I claim that the law shows that a vessel less than 7 meters in length poses less of a hazard to navigation than one 7 meters and longer. My last example is found in Rule 30(e), which states, “A vessel less than 7 meters in length, when at anchor, not in or near a narrow channel, fairway or anchorage, or where other vessels normally navigate, shall not be required to exhibit the lights or shape prescribed in paragraphs (a) and (b) of this rule.”

With this legal foundation, I have formulated the Seven/Seven Guideline for ASVs. If an ASV is 7 meters in length or longer, or if it has the ability to travel 7 knots or faster, and it’s operating in an autonomous or semi-autonomous mode, it must have an onboard means of preventing collisions at sea. That’s not a law; it’s a suggested guideline. So, let’s say that you disagree with the Seven/Seven Guideline. Can you legally operate counter to it? Yes, of course you can. Will you incur more liability if you do not meet the Seven/Seven Guideline and your ASV is involved in a collision? Probably yes, but every case is different. If your ASV is found to be at fault, you might go from a judge convicting you of mere negligence to gross negligence.

Let’s say that you do agree with the Seven/Seven Guideline. What then constitutes an onboard means of preventing a collision? It is called artificial intelligence maneuvering (AIM). It’s an onboard computer that has multiple sensory inputs that can ascertain a potential collision and take action to avoid it. Just what are the specific requirements of AIM? Well, that’s a matter of opinion too, and there are no established laws regarding AIM yet. Different people are using different standards. They have their own ideas about what AIM should be, and so do I. But I’ve managed to talk to quite a few of them.

The most notable large ASV equipped with AIM is C-Worker 12P5 from ASV Global. It is 12.17 meters in length and it has a top speed of 10 knots. It has a sophisticated collision avoidance system that includes radar, light detection and ranging (LIDAR), cameras, infrared sensors, electronic chartplotting, a whistle, navigation lights, day shapes, AIS, GPS and a Differential Global Navigation Satellite System (DGNSS). This is all integrated in an onboard computer program that has full maneuverability control of the ASV.

Another notable example of AIM in use today is the SEA-KIT Maxlimer. It is 11 meters long and is equipped with 360-degree cameras, radar, LIDAR, navigation lights, task lights and day shapes. It constantly collects sensor data for full collision avoidance maneuvers. It’s so smart, in fact, that it was the first oceangoing ASV to launch, operate and recover its own autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) and its own remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

There are plans to test some very large semi-autonomous vehicles in the 91- to 122-meter range (roughly 300 to 400 feet). Deputy Administrator Richard Balzano of the U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd) has talked about supporting the U.S. Navy’s Overlord Program, with MarAd supplying three merchant vessels that will be converted to ASVs. The Navy will then experiment, using them for various military-oriented missions over a period of 90 days. Testing of automated bulk carriers on the Great Lakes is also happening. The ships will be about 244 meters long (800 feet), by far the largest ASVs to date. As of now these are all just tests, but other people have different ideas about using large autonomous ships very soon.

The author operates Teledyne Marine’s Q-Boat 1250 from a dock in San Diego, Calif. The remote-control transmitter differentially adjusts a pair of thrusters, one in each outrigger, to steer the survey craft.

Capt. Marc Deglinnocenti

In 2020, the containership Yara Birkeland will be launched. It will be about 80 meters (262 feet) long and carry 120 TEUs. The fully electric vehicle will operate in Norway in a 100 percent autonomous mode without any crew on board. Regulations governing crew requirements for large autonomous ships in international waters and many regional areas have not been determined, however. There’s a lot to consider before these laws can be standardized.

What happens if an ASV ship equipped with an AIM system is involved in a collision? The ASV ship might sink without a damage control team. Automated fire suppression systems and materials only go so far; firefighting crews are needed to nip some incidents in the bud. If your ship breaks down, it can pose a hazard to navigation. How long will it take to get a crew on board to repair it? Are shipping companies willing to lose thousands of dollars an hour by these unforeseen delays? Do the companies plan on taking ASV ships out of service for weeks at a time because onboard routine maintenance can no longer be performed? What will their vessel insurance premiums look like without crew on board? Those are great safety and economic questions, but ASV ships can violate international laws even if nothing goes wrong.

The law of the sea is as old as shipping itself. If a fellow mariner is in trouble on the high seas, you have a legal obligation to help them under the current treaty. ASV ships cannot fulfill this obligation without crewmembers on board. If we change the law to exempt ASV ships from rendering aid to those in need, then lives will be lost. I for one do not want to live in that kind of society, whether it’s the law or not. So, what should be the recommended size limit for mandatory crew requirements anyway?

Once again I turn to the Navigation Rules for guidance. Rule 23(a)(ii) states, “A power-driven vessel underway shall exhibit … a second masthead light abaft of and higher than the forward one; except that a vessel of less than 50 meters in length, shall not be obliged to exhibit such light but may do so.” This rule points to major increased requirements for vessels of 50 meters or more. Any ASV ship 50 meters in length or more should have a crew.

I have other guidelines too. A passenger ASV should have a crew if it’s 12 meters in length or more because passengers can present an even greater need for immediate crew intervention. Rule 23(d)(i) states, “A power-driven vessel of less than 12 meters in length may in lieu of the lights prescribed in paragraph (a) of this rule exhibit an all-round white light and sidelights.” Twelve meters is the next step up in potentially more hazardous vessels from the Seven/Seven Guideline.

Navies want to use large ASV ships without crew to clear mines or engage in other inherently dangerous operations. War ASVs and AUVs should be exempt from crew requirements; that can save lives. Reduced crew requirements for large ASV merchant ships can help with current and future predicted work force shortages. AIM can step in when boredom, inattention and fatigue become accident factors, enhancing safety at sea. In the meantime, it’s much more likely that the first international laws regarding ASVs and AUVs will be judgments or “case laws” established as a result of litigation rather than by international convention.

Capt. Marc Deglinnocenti is a maritime technical writer who recently served as a panelist at a forum on autonomous vessels at the Ship Operations Cooperative Program (SOCP) Spring Summit, held at the STAR Center in Dania Beach, Fla. His sea time dates to 1974 in a wide variety of roles on sailboats, conventional and tractor tugboats, training ships, barges, warships, cargo ships, passenger vessels and research vessels. He can be reached by emailing

By Professional Mariner Staff