The unmanned/autonomous ships are the newly-introduced type of ships that have already started appearing in the modern commercial reality. Companies all over the world began investing in new technologies, focusing on the development of revolutionary and innovative ships. The idea of a ship navigating completely unmanned, without any crew and master on board appears feasible through the modern technological inventions. The new technologies and infrastructure provide the possibility to the owner of the vessel to operate and control it from the shore or from a distance. Thus, the picture of a person sitting in front the screen, operating and remotely controlling the unmanned/autonomous ship seems to be the new reality, in which the controller/ operator will replace the master on board.
The main difference between unmanned/autonomous and conventional ships is the manning requirement. In other words, under the current regulatory framework the vessels are fully manned, i.e. with crew and master on board. Conversely, the unmanned/autonomous ships are characterised by the absence of human factor on board. The absence of the manning requirement is the element that creates concerns regarding the application and operation of such ships. The piracy, the fire on board, the jurisdictional issues, the cyberattacks and the unseaworthiness are, among others, some of the main issues and difficulties that the autonomous/ unmanned vessels may face during their sail.
In the new era of unmanned ships, it would be naive to be anticipated that pirates and terrorists will disappear from the seas, since this newly-introduced concept of ships would be an easier and softer target for them, bringing and increasing the number of the new aspiring terrorists/pirates. The fact that the ship will be with no crew and master on board, it automatically means that it could be taken as hostage much easier rather than the previous traditional armed interventions. In addition, there is a high percentage of danger that the modern pirates will attack the autonomous ships, aiming directly at their cargoes, which will become the contemporary "victims" of pirates, instead of taking hostages. This is likely to become a daily habit, because a specific cargo may have a higher value than human lives to pirates. Furthermore, the unmanned surface vehicles are capable of being attacked using some of the methods presently utilized by pirates.
It is interesting to be mentioned that according to the reports of International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the piracy in the first six months of 2018, increased dramatically. More specifically, the number of crew members taken hostage increased from 63 to 102 compared to the same period in 2017. Thus, the scenario of an unmanned ship, navigating without any intervention on board, entering the turbulent waters of Somalia, with the danger of any piracy attack, seems to be realistic. The potential results would be that pirates will sail the vessel to a quiet place close the shore, contacting the operators or the company owns the ship, demanding ransom.
III. Fire on board
Fire is considered as one of the most common and dangerous situations that happens on board in the history of shipping. Traditionally, the fire on board is detected by the crew of ship, which tries as soon as possible to extinguish it. The crew and masters must be sufficient and competent, being able to manage any problem that could possibly arise throughout the journey. However, when a vessel sails completely unmanned the human factor is absent. This means that the operators who will be in front the screens and cameras operating the ship, they will not have a wide range of choices nor could take any initiatives, since they will simply rely on the systems. Therefore, their performance seems to be limited and any error of the operation will bring the ship in trouble, as the operators will not have the absolute physical control and sovereignty of the ship.
IV. Jurisdictional issues
Another potential problem that the unmanned cargo ships may face is related to the jurisdiction of a state. In general, according to Article 91 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), each flag state whose ships are registered, has the nationality of that state and such ships are pursuant to article 94 under the duties of that flag state.
However, this does not automatically mean that other states or their domestic laws and regulations could recognise and consider such ships in the same way as the traditional ones. In other words, it is not obvious that the recognition of such ships from their flag state make them legally accepted.
The above mentioned concern is not only important for the purposes of the Public International Law, but also it is crucial for the carriage of the goods by sea, since the ship will not arrive at the discharge port and therefore, the goods carried will not be discharged and delivered. This scenario seems to be possible, since a coastal state through its prescriptive and enforcement power (jurisdiction) can impose restrictions to its various jurisdictional zones, refusing or prohibiting the operation of such ships within them or even to detain that ships when they enter its ports.
A representative example of that restriction was seen in Republic of Nicaragua v The United States of America (judgment on the merits), where the country of Nicaragua denied the access of ships to its ports. For the sake of consistency, it is useful to be mentioned that a coastal state has maximum prescriptive and enforcement jurisdiction on its ports, enjoying an absolute sovereignty on them. This right is also given and recognised under Customary International Law.
Due to the unmanned cargo ships will be fully operated and equipped by technological equipment and devices, such as computer, there is a high percentage of being attacked by hackers, and therefore, the communications links could become vulnerable to attack. It makes sense that the absence of master and crew on board will lead to an excessive use of digital computer systems, which will be at any time exposed to any cyberattack.
Especially, if the people who will operate these systems are not properly informed about them or because of the lack of proper care and understanding of the maintenance the systems require, they may be an easy target for the hackers, putting in danger, not only the ship, but also its cargo. For example, as a result of cyberattack, operators may lose the signal of the vessel and therefore, they stop having access to and control of the vessel. This is because the digital computers and equipment on board are likely to be poorly maintained if it comes to anti-virus software or operating systems.
The seaworthiness obligation of a vessel plays a key role in the Shipping industry. Nowadays, where the new technologies increased dramatically, disclosing a new type of ships, the unmanned ones, the necessity of the duty of the shipowner/ carrier to provide a seaworthy vessel seems imperative. However, the concept of seaworthiness was firstly designed and developed to include and cover the needs of the traditional ships, which are fully manned. This implies that the presence of human existence on board is the epicenter in the current regulatory framework.
Consequently, this categorisation makes the unmanned cargo ships prima facie unseaworthy, and further unadaptable to the existing laws and regulations. In addition, due to the gap in the legislation, which created by the lack of any provisions or/ and regulations dealing with the unmanned ships, it is created an uncertainty regarding the legal status of such ships.
Moreover, an additional barrier is that the International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) 1974, will not generally apply to the unmanned cargo ships, which practically means that the controller/ operator is not obliged to follow the various standards provided by SOLAS, or maintain its certificates. This would be problematic, since, falling outside of the SOLAS certification regime, the vessel will be open to unlimited and non-standardised investigations by the ports authorities.
The concept of unmanned cargo ships seems to be a reality in the forthcoming future and therefore, it is of paramount importance for the global maritime industry to take drastic measures and actions, as soon as possible, minimizing any potential danger or difficulties the operation of unmanned ship may face. Ongoing sea trials and a holistic update/ amendment of the current legislation will definitely help the unmanned ships to become more capable and efficient, dealing effectively with any expected peril of the sea. However, there is no viable economic benefit for a completely autonomous ocean-going ship in the immediate future. It seems that the autonomous/unmanned vessels are unlikely to displace the human network of maritime professionals that have always made and maintain the maritime transportation safe and secure. The most likely scenario though, is that autonomous shipping will be an additional option for future ship operation.
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