Cyber Liability Hampers Unmanned Ship Implementation

Uncertainty surrounding liability issues relating to unmanned ships and incidents as a result of a cyber-attack are hindering implementation of these vessels.

A report by law firm Clyde & Co and the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology (IMarEST) showed that almost two thirds, 64%, of global marine industry executives believe the uncertainty exists.

The survey, which included 220 marine industry executives from across the world, also found that there is a lack of clarity around collisions involving unmanned ships, with 59% of survey respondents agreeing there is confusion surrounding the regulations in this area.

Clyde & Co explains that current international shipping law states that vessels must be properly crewed, which means that unmanned ships are not presently permitted to enter international waters.

However, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a UN agency that regulates shipping, announced in June of this year that it would begin to consider updating the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) to allow cargo ships with no captain or crew to travel between countries.

The Comité Maritime International (CMI) has also this year established a Working Group on ‘Maritime law for unmanned craft’ to consider how international conventions and regulations can be adapted to provide for the operation of unmanned vessels on the high seas.

“The present state of SOLAS and collision avoidance regulations are being over taken by and holding back potentially industry-changing technology from being developed and implemented,” Joe Walsh, Partner at Clyde & Co, said.

“Fortunately, the IMO, CMI and other industry interests appear to have recognised that there is a real appetite to test the water with unmanned ships at a commercial level. Industry will quickly need some legal clarity around cyber liability and collision regulations before any ground-breaking progress can be made,” Walsh added.

Some 68% of survey respondents fear that unmanned ships present a greater cyber-security risk than traditional ships.

The report finds that another key issue is the availability of insurance cover for unmanned ships. Four of every five (80%) survey respondents think it is unclear how insurers will approach the new technology.

Half of survey respondents predict unmanned ships will be implemented in the next 10-15 years, while nearly two thirds believe that the industry is not at all prepared for such ships in terms of infrastructure requirements.

Furthermore, half think that crews do not currently have the skill sets needed to operate and maintain unmanned ships.

“It’s clear there is plenty of work to be done but currently it is very much a chicken and egg situation. The marine industry desperately needs more clarity on the legal framework if they’re going to invest in the infrastructure and skills needed to roll out unmanned shipping on a commercial level,” Walsh said.

“Meanwhile, regulators are unlikely to invest much time in assessing technology that they don’t think the industry is considering for widespread use,” Walsh concluded.

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