AI and Maritime Law

A new era for Yachting

Dr. Susanna Grech Deguara | 26 Jun 2023

maritime and artificial intelligence img

In the infancy days of Maritime Law, when the Rhodian Sea Law was being drafted, its writers made a reasonable assumption which, thousands of years later, is being challenged. Legal writers assumed that every ship would carry a crew. Indeed, most of the maritime legislation which regulates the seas currently is based on this very assumption. Today, with the mass adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) on the horizon, it is ripe time to understand how this innovative technology impacts our maritime framework.  

AI & Maritime Law in a Nutshell 

Prima facie, it can be difficult to understand how maritime law and AI intersect. However, the maritime industry has experienced an increase in the adoption of AI technologies. Autonomous ships and yachts are appearing on the coasts and in harbors. Autonomous ships, also known as unmanned vessels, are ships that operate without a crew onboard. Being equipped with advanced technology, including sensors, cameras, and machine learning algorithms, they can navigate and operate on their own. Autonomous ships are a growing area of interest in the shipping industry, as they have the potential to improve safety, reduce costs, and increase efficiency.  

Key Legal Points  

  • Challanges to main conventions
  • Legality of MASS
  • Future of maritime legislation

AI’s Autonomy  

The International Maritime Organisation's (IMO) Strategic Plan (2018-2023) has a key strategic direction to "Integrate new and advancing technologies in the regulatory framework". This involves understanding the benefits offered by new and advancing technologies against safety and security concerns, the impact on the environment and on international trade facilitation, the potential costs to the industry, and finally the impact on personnel, both on board and ashore. Therefore, the IMO has done a regulatory scoping exercise on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) and has defined four levels of autonomy.

Levels of Autonomy of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships

  1. Ship with automated processes and decision support: crew are on board to operate and control vessel systems and functions. However, some operations on board may be automated and at times be unsupervised but with the crew on board ready to take control.
  2. Remotely controlled ship with seafarers on board: such vessels are controlled and operated from another location. Crew are available on board to operate the shipboard systems and functions if required.
  3. Remotely controlled ship without seafarers on board: the vessel is controlled and operated from another location. There are no seafarers on board.
  4. Fully autonomous ship: the operating system of the ship can make decisions and determine actions by itself. No crew are on board to assist in the navigation or operations of the ship.

From the studies conducted by the IMO, it transpires that not only vessels which are fully navigated by AI pose a challenge under the current maritime legislation. Essentially, all current legislation hangs on the premise that all yachts and ships are manned, and therefore the crew are in control. For example, the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) imposes a duty on flag states to ensure proper manning of their registered ships. It is interesting to understand what this will mean in the era of autonomous yachting.  

AI in Maritime Conventions  

In its regulatory scoping exercise, the IMO aims at identifying the provisions within the IMO legal texts which preclude MASS. In 2018, the Comite Maritime International (CMI) considered a regulatory framework for autonomous vessel which would have international jurisdiction. They looked at the major conventions, including SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea), STCW (Training and Certification), SAR (Search and Rescue) and SUA (Suppression of Unlawful Acts). The IMO built on the good work done by the CMI and analyzed the nine major IMO conventions which are the crux of modern maritime law.  

Legal Concerns  

Whilst the international key players and legislators are trying their best to keep abreast with the technological developments, some pertinent issues will undoubtedly shape the industry. 

Master and Seafarer  

Perhaps, the most obvious hurdle which requires imminent attention is the crew. As stated above, the UNCLOS imposes duties on the flag state to ensure that a master is in charge of all ships, who is to be aided by officers who possess the appropriate qualifications. One of the most fundamental rules that is thought to novice deck hands stems from the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea (COLREGs), which states that nothing in the rules shall exonerate any vessel, or the owner or crew from the consequences of any neglect to comply with regulations or the neglect of any precautions which may be required by the ordinary practice of the seaman. The inevitable question in the case of MASS is, on whom does this burden lay if there is no master on board. Should the operating system of the vessel itself be responsible? If a maintenance crew of non-seafarers are ongoing maintenance on a MASS, should they be responsible for any shortcomings done by AI?  

The COLREGs also define the term “in sight” and describes the scenario during which “vessels shall be deemed to be in sight of each other”. As things stand, this was bound by the limitations of human sight. However, does a satellite feed, sensor, or camera count as “visual aid”?  

Crew Training 

As things stand, the STCW is the main legal document which regulates the training of seafarers. The STCW applies to seafarers serving on board seagoing vessels. Therefore, as things stand, it does not apply to people who are controlling vessel remotely, who essentially, act as masters. It is pertinent that these regulations will also apply to land-based crew members who will have effective control over MASS.  

Ship Construction & Records 

Apart from the fact that vessels need to be watertight, a lot might change in the construction and set up of yachts and ships. As things stand, only a few of the main conventions allow for the use of electronic documentation rather than carrying on board hard copies of the yacht’s paperwork. It would be highly unnecessary to carry on board hard copies of manuals and yacht documents if the vessel is unmanned. Changes are also on the horizon for the current requirement of the maintaining of a crew list on board a vessel. Land-based crew who enjoy effective control over a vessel should also be included in such lists. In the case of completely autonomous vessels, the use of a crew list could be considered futile.  

Yacht construction will also be impacted. The use and design of the bridge and engine control room will certainly be different on fully autonomous yachts. 

What this means for you 

The changes brought about by AI are undoubtedly taking the world by storm, and yachting is no exception. Several legal scholars and international organisations have submitted their proposals on how to tackle these problems. Perhaps, we will shortly welcome a new set of legal conventions which would shape the yachting horizon as we know it. Whether you are looking for your next super yacht investment or whether you are currently a seafarer on board a vessel, it is vital to keep updated with the latest technological and legal changes which might impact your next move. 

How we can help 

Our Maritime Law Practice Group regularly advises on transfers and purchases, structured financing and refinancing of all types of vessels, from sailing yachts to cargo vessels. Our team has, through its established links with various credit and other financial institutions throughout the world, assisted in numerous transactions involving the registration of statutory mortgages on Malta-flagged ships. Our Maritime lawyers have long been involved in typical or complex transactions in this area and through the use of Malta solutions, based on the country's sound legal framework, have added value, and given solutions beyond the traditional execution of orders. 

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