Can the Prospect of Unmanned Ships Stay Afloat under the Current Collision Regulations?

AuthorWill Timbrell
PositionUniversity of Southampton
[2019] Vol.9
Can the Prospect of Unmanned Ships Stay Afloat under the Current Collision
Will Timbrell
University of Southampton
The prospect of unmanned shipping was previously confined to fiction, however, technological
developments over the last decade have firmly established their place in the future of the Shipping
industry. This essay focuses on unmanned ship’s ability to comply with the 1972 Collision Regulations
(COLREGs). This essay will discuss whether unmanned ships can satisfy the existing COLREGs,
whether enforcement of the COLREGs will need to be adapted and, finally, what reform is currently
ongoing to rectify the issues that are thrown up in the course of this analysis. In conclusion, it is
submitted that alterations to the current COLREGs will be required in order to allow application to
unmanned ships; this change should take place quickly though through a Convention and not be left
to gradual change through the Courts. This will provide sufficient certainty and confidence for those
looking to invest in unmanned vessels and this will allow a smooth transition into the new era of the
shipping industry.
1.0 Introduction
he concept of unmanned ships is by no means a new phenomenon. This prospect though is
now becoming a reality, with ‘prototypes… currently being developed by a range of
protagonists to develop unmanned container carriers and passenger liners of comparable size
and operational capability as manned ships performing these functions’.1
It is predicted that the impact this will have will be comparable to that of ‘the introduction of steel
construction and steam propulsion…in the nineteenth century’.2 From the beginning however, there
1 R Veal, ‘Unmanned Ships and the International Regulatory Framework’ (2017) JIML 23(2) 100.
2 E Van Hooydonk, ‘The Law of Unmanned Merchant Shipping - An Exploration’ (2014) JIML 20(3) 403, 408.

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