Executive Briefings

Autonomous Shipping Raises Legal Concerns

While the U.K. Shipping Register has included its first autonomous vessel, there are several gaps that need to be addressed before such technology becomes widespread and moves into the international domain.

This issue involves several complex relationships. On the shipping side of the equation, there is the complex commercial interaction of the owner, operator, various management companies, insurers, brokers, agents, and crews (and more). On the regulatory side, the issue is somewhat clearer but generally involves inspectors (having limited enforcement, public agent or policing roles), government officials, legal teams and so forth. When considering the interaction between these, the factors involve jurisdiction and the interaction of nations and companies that is coordinated in accordance with various port state control agreements.

When considering the issue of autonomous shipping, we must be careful at the onset regarding certain terms. The term autonomous generally refers to a state of acting independently or having the freedom to act independently. In short, the system on board the vessel can identify, assess and respond to conditions around it in accordance with programming factors.

How does this become challenging within the legal domain? Let us consider four major areas:

  • The conduct of inspections on board the vessel;
  • The ability to enforce compliance or require immediate action on board the vessel;
  • The ability to investigate potential crimes; and
  • The ability to prosecute and enforce the rule of law.

The first involves the ability to conduct an inspection on board the vessel. The question here is how does one inspect the data-link between the entity controlling the vessel and the vessel itself? As those involved in the penetration testing regime understand, one does not simply launch into a full examination of an operational network without taking more than a few precautions to ensure that the examination itself does not interfere with critical or safety-related services. The questions here involve issues associated with a changing role for inspectors, expanding the knowledge necessarily possessed by inspectors, the tools that are used by inspectors, and the limits of legal liability.

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This issue involves several complex relationships. On the shipping side of the equation, there is the complex commercial interaction of the owner, operator, various management companies, insurers, brokers, agents, and crews (and more). On the regulatory side, the issue is somewhat clearer but generally involves inspectors (having limited enforcement, public agent or policing roles), government officials, legal teams and so forth. When considering the interaction between these, the factors involve jurisdiction and the interaction of nations and companies that is coordinated in accordance with various port state control agreements.

When considering the issue of autonomous shipping, we must be careful at the onset regarding certain terms. The term autonomous generally refers to a state of acting independently or having the freedom to act independently. In short, the system on board the vessel can identify, assess and respond to conditions around it in accordance with programming factors.

How does this become challenging within the legal domain? Let us consider four major areas:

  • The conduct of inspections on board the vessel;
  • The ability to enforce compliance or require immediate action on board the vessel;
  • The ability to investigate potential crimes; and
  • The ability to prosecute and enforce the rule of law.

The first involves the ability to conduct an inspection on board the vessel. The question here is how does one inspect the data-link between the entity controlling the vessel and the vessel itself? As those involved in the penetration testing regime understand, one does not simply launch into a full examination of an operational network without taking more than a few precautions to ensure that the examination itself does not interfere with critical or safety-related services. The questions here involve issues associated with a changing role for inspectors, expanding the knowledge necessarily possessed by inspectors, the tools that are used by inspectors, and the limits of legal liability.

Read Full Article