Issues Archive

May/June 2018 Vol. 22
No. 3
 ASV Global's C-CAT 3  
  small multi-purpose work  
 The author operating a  
  Teledyne Marine Q-Boat  
  1250 unmanned surface  
  vessel at Mission Bay,  
  San Diego, California 
Autonomous surface vehicles and the law  

By Captain Marc Deglinnocenti, Boise, Idaho, USA  

Autonomous surface vehicles are here, but not all of the laws are!

It is a simple fact that autonomous surface vehicles are extremely popular and more are being built every day. These waterbourne vehicles 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, fast ones can be a bit more dangerous. All of these types of ASVs are operating right now, because 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 an ASV of a metre or so long that can survey the bottom 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 GPS to let the operator know where the ASV is. They start off at about US$5000 (£3500) and can climb up in price from there. The liability to operate them can be low too, once again, if used the right way.

According to Lt. Chris Rabalais of the US Coast Guard, if you are operating these small ASVs in the 100% 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 vessel collision, your vehicle probably won’t cause a great deal of damage to the vessel involved. The lieutenant also points out the fact that there’s probably not going to be a big oil spill that’s 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.

If you intend to operate a larger ASV in US waters in the 100% autonomous or semi-autonomous mode, Lt. Rabalais recommends an early and open communications relationship between the builder or operator and the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard can save you a great deal of potential ASV deployment delays all while helping you legally and safely accomplish your goals. It can recommend safety modifications that will satisfy their requirements and even has the authority to authorise Automatic Identification System (AIS) for your ASV on a case by case basis. AIS for all ASVs is still under review. AIS for ASVs is also currently under review by the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities (IALA), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Telecommunications 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 you are found at fault on one point or more. It still would be better to have the Coast Guard say that you complied with all of its requirements, and that it gave you permission to operate your large ASV with legal AIS installed. How soon should you initiate contact with the Coast Guard? Lt. Rabalais recommends that you start a dialogue 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 US 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 as to what a smaller, less hazardous, “vessel” is and what a slower, less hazardous, speed for “vessels” is. I then extrapolate that over to “vehicles”.

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

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 that are slower than seven knots and shorter than seven metres in length are less dangerous than ones exceeding those parameters. That’s a simple fact, because the vessels under those two sevens have less 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’s more laws to corroborate this theory.

Rule 25(d)(i) states that a sailing vessel of less than seven metres in length also has light exceptions. I claim that the law shows that a vessel less than seven metres in length poses less of a hazard to navigation than one seven metres and over. My last example is found in the following rule.

Rule 30(e). “A vessel less than seven metres in length, when at anchor not in or near a narrow channel, fairway, or where other vessels normally navigate, shall not be required to exhibit the lights or shape prescribed in Rule 30(a) and (b).”

With this legal foundation, I have formulated the Seven/Seven Guideline for ASVs. If an ASV is seven metres in length or longer, or if it has the ability to travel seven 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 the Seven/Seven Guideline? 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 assigning you mere negligence to gross negligence. Let’s say that you do agree with the Seven/Seven Guideline. What constitutes an onboard means of preventing a collision then?

It is called Artificial Intelligence Manoeuvring (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 the C-Worker 12P from ASV Global, UK. It is 12.17 metres in length and it has a top speed of 10 knots. It has a sophisticated collision avoidance system which includes radar, light detection and ranging (LiDAR), cameras, infrared sensors, electronic chart plotting, a whistle, navigation lights, day shapes, AIS, GPS and Global Differential Navigation Satellite System (GDNSS). This is all integrated into an onboard computer program that has full manoeuvrability control of the ASV. It has been said that it has its own form of artificial intelligence.

Another notable example of AIM in use today is in the 11-metre Sea-Kit Maxlimer. It is equipped with 360-degree cameras, radar, LiDAR, navigation lights, task lights and day shapes. It constantly collects all the sensor data for on-scene full collision avoidance manoeuvres. It’s so smart in fact, that it was the first ocean-going ASV to launch, operate and recover its own autonomous underwater vehicle and its own remotely operated vehicle.

Others are testing different AIM systems right now. The ASV Spectre Mk4 is fully autonomous with GPS, AIS and radar, and many other sensors installed. Work is being undertaken on a collision avoidance “proof of concept” with automatic radar plotting aid (ARPA) type of radar integrated into onboard computer software. This will allow the ASV to predict possible collisions with multiple targets at one time. It will prioritise the targets and autonomously manoeuvre in accordance with current rules for vessels even though it’s a vehicle.

Houston, USA-based Ocean Infinity operates a fleet of six 7.22-metre, well-equipped, with multiple redundancy, semi-autonomous ASVs. These Seaworker vehicles have a top speed of eight knots. The company is awaiting the results of an American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) scoping study regarding ASVs due in 2022, and is very interested in any future sophisticated AIM systems to increase safety at sea. The firm has a dedicated operator assigned to each ASV and monitors each one of them all of the time. It has a good attitude towards current safety procedures as well as developing even better safety at sea capabilities in the future, and the future holds even more ambitious ASV designs.

There are future plans to test some very large semi-autonomous vehicles in the 91- to 122-metre (300- to 400-foot) range. According to deputy administrator Richard Balzano of the US Maritime Administration (MARAD), MARAD will be supporting the US Navy’s Overlord Program by supplying three merchant vessels which 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 metres (800 feet) in length. These are by far the largest ASV ships to date. As of now these are all just tests, but other people have different ideas about using large ASV ships very soon.

In 2020 the containerised cargo ship Yara Birkeland will be launched. It will be about 80 metres in length and carry 120 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). The fully electric vehicle will operate in Norway in a 100% autonomous mode without any crew on board. The crew requirements for these large ASV ships in international waters and many other waters have not yet been determined. There’s a lot to consider before those laws can be standardised.

What happens if an ASV ship equipped with an AIM system is involved in a collision anyway? 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 fires 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 economical questions, but international laws can be violated by ASV ships 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 crew members 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 (ii). A second masthead light abaft of and higher than the forward one; except that a vessel of less than 50 metres 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 metres or more. Any ASV ship 50 metres in length or more should have a crew. I have other guidelines too. A passenger ASV should have a crew if it’s 12 metres in length or more, because passengers can pose an even greater need for immediate crew intervention.

Rule 23 (i). A power-driven vessel of less than 12 metres in length may in lieu of the lights prescribed in paragraph (a) of this Rule exhibit an all-round white light and sidelights, etc. Twelve metres was the next step up in potentially more hazardous vessels from the Seven/Seven Guideline. I have opinions for autonomous underwater vehicles too.

Rule 24 (i). An inconspicuous, partly submerged vessel or object, or combination of such vessels or objects being towed, shall exhibit: if it is 25 metres or more in breadth, two additional all-round white lights at or near the extremities of its breadth. It’s my opinion that AUVs of 25 metres or more should have a crew. With all this being said, I’m not against AIM being installed on crewed ASV ships or even some ASV ships being completely unmanned in certain circumstances.

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 workforce shortages. AIM can step in when boredom, inattention and fatigue become accident factors. As another example, it would be foolish to research volcanic islands forming up close with a civilian crew on board. A sudden explosion and the resulting pyroclastic flow would instantly kill everyone on board – crew and scientific personnel alike. So, AIM can actually enhance safety at sea. In the meantime, it’s much more likely that the first international laws regarding ASVs and AUVs will be judgements or “case laws” established as a result of litigation in courts rather than by international convention.


Capt. Marc Deglinnocenti has more than 40 years of experience in the maritime industry and is a former National Sea Scout representative to the US Maritime Administration. He received a teaching credential from California State University-Sacramento, USA, which he has used to teach maritime technology to students in the California area. He writes technical maritime articles for publication in maritime journals, magazines and other periodicals. Email:

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