Maritime regulation subject to UK Government review to reflect increase in automation

Autonomous technology is being embraced by the maritime industry. It provides solutions to many difficulties facing the sector, including the demand for efficiency, sustainability and coping with a dwindling work force. However, its use also raises questions around liability and additional risks for the operators - and their insurers - which the current regulatory regime may not be equipped to address. In light of this, we welcome (and will be responding to) the UK Government’s regulatory review on maritime autonomy and remote operations.

UK Government consultation

The government’s Future of Transport programme aims to ‘shape transport innovation and make the UK a world leader in transport movement’.

Maritime autonomy is one of the priority areas of the Future of Transport regulatory review, which includes consultations on zero emission vehicles, the future of flight, regulatory sandboxes and modernising vehicle standards.

Acknowledging that the current regulatory framework was designed without contemplation of autonomous vessels, the government ‘seeks views on areas of maritime autonomy regulation that are outdated, a barrier to innovation or not designed with new technologies and business models in mind’ and states that ‘there is a need to ensure that UK law keeps pace to ensure the safe, secure, and environmentally sound operation of remotely operated and autonomous vessels’.

Areas identified for review include:

  • The need for the clarification of terms like ‘Master’
  • Updating obligations such as the on-board carriage of documentation
  • Addressing gaps such as the requirements for Remote Operation Centres (ROCs).

The consultation specifically asks for views on the challenges to the insurance industry, and seeks to address areas around maritime security, including protection against terrorism, piracy and cyber-crime.


The COVID-19 pandemic has perhaps set back the progress of the development of autonomous vessels, but with the pandemic hopefully coming under more control, we can expect the progress to now speed up again. However in order for this new and innovative area of shipping to move forward to its next level, it will be vital that there are regulations in place to cater for this very ‘new’ type of shipping. It is unlikely that an updated regulatory regime or the use of autonomous vessels will be seen on an international stage for a number of years, with the Maritime Safety Committee estimating that it will not be before 2028 before they can develop a new instrument for the safe running of autonomous and remotely operated vessels.

So whilst the science fiction images of fully autonomous vessels shaped like torpedoes in international waters is likely to be many years away, the use of autonomous vessels in national waters is much closer. To that end, the pro-active approach of the UK government with their review is to be applauded. The United Kingdom has a rich history in commercial shipping and as this revolution takes pace, it is important that it is seen as one of the leading countries in helping to move it along.

The review recognises that immediate regulation may not necessarily be the answer at this stage. With individual countries developing their own domestic frameworks, it may then be difficult to adopt whatever international regimes are eventually agreed in the future. However it is hard to imagine the vessels developing and being used without at least some legislative change. The further benefit that this comes with is that the UK legislation could be a help lead the way in future international regulation.

Read other items in Marine Brief - November 2021

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