Ghost Ships: Why the Law Should Embrace Unmanned Vessel Technology

Paul W. Pritchett | Comment

Recent years have seen rapid advancement in the development and use of unmanned autonomous and semiautonomous vehicle technology, colloquially known as drones. Initial development of the technology was driven largely by military applications, but it is now being used more and more in the civilian world. Not surprisingly, one of the first civilian applications of this technology occurred in the maritime industry with the advent of unmanned, underwater vehicles. However, until recently, advancements in unmanned vehicle technology have not reached the water’s surface.

In the past few years, there has been an explosion in the discussion, design, and construction of maritime unmanned surface vehicles (USVs). The term “USV” is meant to capture unmanned vessels that operate on the surface of the water and navigate by remote control, autonomous means, or a hybrid of the two. Since 2010, no less than eight teams have attempted to complete an intercontinental voyage with a USV. In 2012, a USV named PAPA MAU journeyed across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia, a distance of nearly nine thousand nautical miles. While most of these attempts have been academic in nature, other organizations are looking to commercialize the technology.

Currently, there are several companies that advertise complete USV systems for use in various security, oil and gas, survey, and scientific applications. While these USVs are all smaller vessels, generally no larger than the average pleasure boat, some experts have started to suggest that eventually the cargo industry could adopt USVs as the primary method of transporting goods. For example, the Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence in Networks (MUNIN) project, which is partially funded by the European Union, is working toward “the realization of the vision of autonomous and unmanned vessels by developing and verifying a concept for the autonomous ship.” Similarly, Rolls-Royce’s Blue Ocean development team has created a concept for a fully autonomous container vessel and theorized that “[t]hey might be deployed in regions such as the Baltic Sea within a decade.”