Towards Greater Certainty for Unmanned Navigation, a Recommended United States Military Perspective on Application of the “Rules of the Road” to Unmanned Maritime Systems

Cite as: 3 GEO. L. TECH. REV. 119 (2018)

On December 15, 2016, China seized a United States Navy unmanned maritime system (UMS) in the South China Sea.1 The UMS, known as an “ocean glider,” was used by the Navy to gather oceanographic data in the region.2 Chinese naval personnel seized the UMS within sight of Navy research vessel, USNS Bowditch, and despite protests by the United States, the Chinese did not return the UMS for several days.3 A little over a year later, Houthi rebels reportedly seized another United States Navy UMS off the coast of Yemen, although circumstances behind this second incident remain unclear.4 These high profile incidents highlight important questions about the rights and obligations of unmanned systems vis-à-vis the international maritime agreements, notably the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),5 and the various International Maritime Organization (IMO) conventions, including the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW convention), the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), and the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).6 Because these agreements pre-date UMSs, at least in the modern sense of the term,7 the extent that these and other maritime agreements govern UMSs is unclear. This paper focuses primarily on challenges that UMSs present under the COLREGS, the technical rules on maritime navigation, from a perspective recommended for the United States military.

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Christopher C. Swain

Commander, Judge Advocate General’s Corps, United States Navy. LLM, Georgetown University Law Center; J.D., Washington & Lee University School of Law; M.A., Naval War College; B.A., State University of New York at Geneseo. The positions and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Government, the Department of Defense or the United
States Navy. An earlier version of this article was submitted in partial completion of the Master of Laws requirements at Georgetown University Law Center.