Brooklyn Law Review


Annie Brett


The rapid rise in aerial drone use and the future deployment of self-driving cars have both spurred extensive legal and social debate. Autonomous vessels on the ocean, on the other hand, have largely escaped detailed scrutiny, even as they are reshaping the landscape of human interactions with the ocean and creating novel challenges for national and international legal regimes. Autonomous vessels are being captured while spying on other countries, raising concerns about national security and surveillance regimes. The Coast Guard is using enforcement loopholes to justify abandoning many of their autonomous vessels at sea, in flagrant violation of national and international environmental laws. Even the most basic threshold questions, like whether autonomous vessels should be legally considered vessels, are unsettled. In short, the regulatory landscape governing autonomous vessels is a mess. Updating autonomous vessel regulations is essential for supporting the $1.5 trillion global maritime economy. This article evaluates the advent of autonomy at sea and proposes principles for regulating autonomous vessels moving forward. By looking broadly at the diverse ways in which autonomous vessels are changing ocean uses, this article shows how autonomous vessels are challenging existing regulatory frameworks and exploiting governance gaps. While the US and international communities are in the early stages of major new efforts to regulate robotics at sea, these efforts are primarily focused on paving the way for large autonomous cargo ships to be deployed in the 2030s and 2040s. In the meantime, a wide array of smaller autonomous vessels are already common on the world’s oceans, and, in many cases, operating in governance gaps that implicate major environmental, safety, and surveillance concerns. This article proposes concrete principles for regulating autonomous ocean-going vessels moving forward, drawing on analogous regulatory processes developed to govern aerial drones and other types of robotics.