The master-less ship

News / / Dubai

Unmanned technology is gradually emerging at the forefront of several industries. The shipping industry is no exception. Remote-controlled vessels have been around for some time through various military and scientific research programs, however, these have been of a limited size and scope. Recently, Rolls-Royce (“RR”) announced plans to gradually introduce drone technology into the wider shipping market with an aim to develop fully autonomous vessels in the near future.

According to RR, It is expected that by 2020, they will introduce vessels that are capable of being operated with significantly reduced crew numbers on-board who will have remotely-controlled support and operations through the use of drone technology (being a ‘hybrid’ of a manned and unmanned vessel). By 2025, it is projected that they will introduce fully unmanned vessels with the ability to be remote-controlled though an onshore command center (“Remote Controlled Vessels”). Finally, by 2035 it is anticipated that fully autonomous vessels (“Autonomous Vessels”) will be introduced, capable of making ‘intelligent’ decisions through the use of Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) without human interference (though at least initially, these are expected to be supervised onshore).[1] Autonomous Vessels are to be pre-programmed prior to sailing with data, routes and alternate routes taking into consideration various potential unforeseen circumstances (ie. changes in whether, system failures, routes of other vessels, etc).

In this article, we examine potential legal implications of these technologies on shipowner’s liability for carriage of goods under the Hague-Visby Rules (“HVR”).

Navigation is an obvious issue for unmanned vessels and we will therefore look at liabilities arising out of errors of navigation as an example. In case of errors in navigation, Article IV(2)(a) of HVR provides relief to shipowners by generally exempting them from liability where the loss or damage arises from an “act, neglect or default of the master, mariner, pilot or the servants of the carrier in the navigation or in the management of the ship”.

This begs the question – what if there is no master and no crew, and the damage is caused by AI malfunction or operator’s error?

Remote Controlled Vessels

Although Remote Controlled Vessels are unmanned and therefore do not strictly have a master or crew, the existing regime may be still applicable. In a survey conducted by a working group of the Comité Maritime International, of nineteen national maritime law associations (“MLA”) surveyed across the world, nine responded that their national laws expressly require on-board presence for a person to be considered as “crew”[2]. However, onshore operators could fall under the definition of “servants” of the vessel. They can be deemed to be servants as they are taking on the full responsibility of the vessel’s operation[3].

However, evidential issues are likely to be more complicated than just the definition of “crew” or “servants.” For example, an operator can make a poor decision in reliance on wrong information provided by the vessels’ sensors due to a technical failure; as opposed to being culpable for a human error. This raises further questions on the apportionment of liability between the operator, manufacturer or software developer and shipowner, at least by way of indemnity.  

Autonomous Vessels

A further set of issues arise in relation to Autonomous Vessels. Not only do Autonomous Vessels have no crew and no master, they will also have no on-shore operator(s) to assume responsibility for the decision-making process. Decisions will be made through AI taking into consideration all data inputted. Accordingly, if Article IV of HVR were to apply, in theory the liability of the shipowner for losses caused through errors in navigation of the vessel cannot be limited by the acts or omissions of a servant or crew member. This can expose the shipowner to strict liability for errors in navigation.

Another issue arises, in case of navigational error caused by poor decision-making of AI, where notwithstanding the due diligence of the shipowner and correct/adequate data input by his employees, it may be possible to apply the law of product liability (which are strict liability laws in many jurisdictions) to make liable the software developer or manufacturer. This is because the shipowner cannot be deemed “at fault” both in fact and by virtue of the operation of the exception contained in Article IV(2)(p) (latent defects exception). There remains a question of how far the “latent defects” liability exemption will be interpreted in cases of bad decision-making by AI (e.g by apportioning liability between the shipowner, software developer, manufacturer and possibly cargo interests).

Way Forward

The issues discussed above highlight the difficulties that the industry will face if the legislation is not updated in line with the technological advances. The timeline for the introduction of the drone vessels may seem remote but developing new legislation that seeks to adequately respond to the new challenges and to apportion risk fairly also takes time. As the work continues on the draft UAE maritime law, it would be worth bearing in mind these upcoming technological changes and clarifying the application of the law to the new technologies.



[2]  See the CMI International Working Group’s Position Paper on Unmanned Ships and the International Regulatory Framework, and Annex 1 to the CMI IWG Submission to MSC 99th Session containing a Summary of Responses to the CMI Questionnaire on Unmanned Ships.

[3] See Riverstone Meat Co Pty Ltd v Lancashire Shipping Co Ltd (1960) where it was held that the performance of duties of the carrier (e.g due diligence to make the ship seaworthy) by independent third party contractors can be interpreted as work within the capacity of a “servant”.

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