Autonomous Ships and the Law

Page 69

Chapter 5

Switching off regulatory requirements: Flag state exemptions as a tool to facilitate experiments with highly automated vessels and their operational implementation

Frank Smeele

1. Introduction1

Worldwide we are witnessing a dynamic shift in technology toward the development of unmanned and autonomous means of transport in the air (drones), on land (autonomous vehicles), and on water (unmanned and autonomous vessels). In the maritime industry, this major technological breakthrough will obviously have a serious impact on the position of seafarers.2 Despite the likelihood of social disruption,3 this technological transition receives widespread support from governments and from the maritime and IT industries, motivated perhaps by fear of (literally) “missing the boat.” These novel vessels pose many challenges, not only in the domain of technology, but also in that of (maritime) law. They require a fundamental “rethink” of shipping in all its aspects, as since times immemorial the design, construction, operation, and regulation of ships has been based on the presumption that ships are manned. The current regulatory framework applicable to ships (still) reflects these origins by presuming in many instances, whether expressly or impliedly, that ships are manned, navigated, and operated by humans.

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