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Evaluating the Application of International Laws on Navigation and Collision to Operating Autonomous Ships

Movaghar, A. (2023). Evaluating the Application of International Laws on Navigation and Collision to Operating Autonomous Ships. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


The advent of maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS) and the trend towards autonomous shipping mark a significant evolution in the seaborne trade and have generated much debate on the requirements and prospect of MASS operations. Research indicates that MASS have the potential to bring about significant safety, economic and environmental benefits. The question, therefore, is not whether international operation of such vessels should be banned, but how their design, construction and operation should be regulated. However, given that the current international maritime law framework was developed on the presumption that merchant vessels are operated by on-board crew members, operation of MASS presents a full range of legal challenges. Since the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) confers certain navigational rights on ‘ships’ or ‘vessels’, the first obvious challenge is whether a MASS may constitute a ‘ship’ or a ‘vessel’ for the purposes of UNCLOS. A further uncertainty is whether the existing maritime law conventions are capable of accommodating such innovative vessels and regulating their operation merely through amendments to the conventions, or whether completely new legal instruments should be developed to ensure safe MASS operations. From a safety perspective, one of the most important maritime conventions is the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs) as MASS vessels may collide with conventional vessels or with various marine structures and cause casualties and/or damage to the marine environment.

This thesis uses safety and instrumentalism as normative frameworks and the original contributions of the thesis to knowledge are as follows. First, it establishes that MASS enjoy the same navigational rights conferred on ‘ships’ or ‘vessels’ under UNCLOS. Second, it demonstrates that the existing dual framework and qualitative nature of COLREGs should be retained. Third, it shows that COLREGs need certain crucial amendments to enhance the safety of navigation. Finally, it argues that a suggested three-stage process should be adopted and followed for certification of MASS navigated by remote operators or by AI.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HG Finance
J Political Science > JX International law
K Law > K Law (General)
Departments: The City Law School
The City Law School > The City Law School Doctoral Theses
Doctoral Theses
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