According to a story in The Economist that Deven just flagged, shippers are experimenting with the use of “ghost” vessels without crews to move cargo. Reasons include greater safety and lower costs, in part because crews make errors and good crews are expensive. The article has a short section on “rules of the sea” and offers the view of one engineer that there shouldn’t be any legal problems where humans control the vessels from shore.
As it happens, I discuss a version of this issue in Robotics and the New Cyberlaw (at *131):
Craig Allen, a maritime law scholar, recently considers whether unmanned submarines with autonomous capabilities qualify for the full panoply of writes generally afforded vessels in international waters. International law [e.g., UNCLOS VII, Art. 94(1)] premises these rights on the ability of a flag state to retain, again, “effective control” over the behavior of the vessel and crew. This has been taken to mean that there are one or more people in charge of the vessel who are beholden to the flag nation in the right ways. The question of whether autonomous systems are beholden to the United States is not (merely) academic: A nation such as China has a strategic incentive to disqualify underwater American military equipment that patrols its sea shelf, such that international bodies may have to confront the question sooner rather than later.
I suspect that remote piloting of vessels will only be the first step—just as so-called “platooning,” where a professional controls multiple vehicles following closely behind, is likely to precede broader deployment of driverless cars. I wonder whether even the initial deployment will not have some level of autonomy that kicks in where, for instance, contact with the ship is severed. Certain classes of military drones return to base if they lose contact with the pilot. Moreover, there are already smaller research vessels that navigate the “high seas,” where these obligations pertain, and collect or relay data without human intervention. In any event, this issue of effective control—whether in tort, criminal, or apparently maritime law—is one of the ways robotics will pose challenges for law and institutions in the near term.