What about the autonomous vessels beneath the waves?: HFW

Legal firm HFW has noted that, when it comes to autonomous marine vehicles, the focus in the press over the past two years or so has been on Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). However, the lawyers said that Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) had been around longer than MASS and were already being used widely in the maritime, defence and offshore energy industries. Yet they received little press coverage “being out of sight and operating, as it were, beneath the waves”.

While the defence sector was likely to remain the greatest user of AUVs for the foreseeable future with  a more-than 70% market share, the offshore sector was expected to continue seeing a growth in usage.

Westwood Global Energy’s World AUV Market Forecast 2018-2022 said that the offshore industry in particular was expected to increase its demand for AUVs as operators continued to expand into deeper waters.

AUVs were already capable of carrying out a vast range of tasks, including:

high resolution seabed mapping and imaging; pipeline and subsea structure inspection;

  • oceanographic surveys;
  • environmental monitoring;
  • search operations;
  • mine countermeasures operations;
  • geological surveys;
  • intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Variants of Kongsberg’s HUGIN AUV, which can operate to depths of 6,000m, were used by Fugro and Ocean Infinity to search for the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 (MH 370) which went missing in March 2014. Ocean Infinity deployed eight AUVs, giving it the ability to survey an average of 1,100 km2 per day. By June 2018 it had searched and collected 120,000 km2 of data from the ocean floor, which was donated to the Nippon Foundation and Gebco Seabed 2030 project.

Ocean Infinity has also been appointed by the Argentine authorities to search for the Argentine submarine ARA San Juan which was lost during a routine patrol in the South Atlantic in November 2017. The Argentine Type S-42 submarine was located last November after a year-long search.

Endurance was still a limiting factor for most AUVs. HUGIN AUVs have an endurance of up to 60 hours and require a dedicated support vessel for launch and recovery. A number of other AUVs can operate without the support of a dedicated support vessel.

At the smaller end of the scale, HFW noted that underwater gliders used buoyancy-based propulsion, with very low power consumption, to propel themselves forward, and could be deployed for months at a time. These had a variety of uses ranging from environmental monitoring, current profiling, to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

At the larger end, Boeing was testing its extra-large unmanned undersea vehicle Echo Voyager which could be used for scientific, defence or other purposes. It is powered by a hybrid of battery technology and diesel generators and is expected to have a range of around 6,500 nm.

How are AUVs regulated?

Unlike a MASS, an AUV was unlikely to be considered a ship under English law, and the Society for Underwater Technology (SUT). An AUV was also unlikely to be considered a ship for most of the international conventions.

As such the maritime standards set out in the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972 (COLREGs) were unlikely to apply to the types of AUV described above, although the regulating authorities might be reluctant to exclude larger AUVs such as the Echo Voyager from the ordinary application of the Rules when operating on the surface in the vicinity of other vessels.