Like driverless cars on our roads, are unmanned boats and submarines the way of the future in the ocean as well? This is entirely possible with what is known as marine autonomous vessels, or MAVs for short. UNSW Canberra Professor of International Law and Security, Douglas Guilfoyle, deep dives into what is so unique about MAVs and what the future holds for these types of vessels.    

What are MAVs? 

Marine autonomous vessels (MAVs) come in a variety of forms. These could range from what looks like a perfectly normal cargo container vessel (which lacks a human crew on board), through to small and highly specialised systems designed for military or law enforcement tasks such as mine clearing or intelligence gathering and surveillance. The International Maritime Organization distinguishes four levels of autonomy ranging from manual navigation by a human crew with AI decision support, to a remote-controlled vessel with no crew on board, to fully autonomous vessels. 

What can MAVs do that crewed vessels can’t? 

The key advantages of using marine autonomous vessels, in theory, are cost and endurance based. MAVs could save on crew costs. In a military context, a navy could potentially shift from having a limited number of very large and expensive platforms to a distributed network of smaller systems. In terms of endurance, small solar powered uncrewed systems might be able to stay at sea longer than manned platforms. Whether these advantages are achievable with present technology is still up for debate. Autonomous vehicles may still require significant maintenance and backend supervision, or even remote piloting. MAVs may therefore not save on money and personnel, instead, shifts those costs onshore. 

Are there safety issues in using MAVs? 

The safety trade-offs in using MAVs are not entirely clear. There is a long tradition at sea of commercial and government vessels rescuing other seafarers in distress. Indeed, rescuing the shipwrecked is a seafarer’s duty under international law.  

But how can a vessel without a crew – without even quarters or supplies for a crew – carry out such a rescue?  

There have also been suggestions that autonomous vessels could be used in law-enforcement operations. But maritime law-enforcement may involve using force against a suspect vessel. But if suspects became injured or shipwrecked as a result of force, there would again be questions about how to rescue them. On the other hand, a wide network of surveillance  

MAVs could improve Australia’s ability to detect vessels in distress in our vast maritime search and rescue zone that covers 10% of the Earth’s surface. 

What is the future of MAVs for Australia? 

MAVs could serve a number of useful functions for Australia in the future.  

We are a nation heavily reliant on seaborne trade, and large marine autonomous surface ships engaged in commercial shipping could be a significant part of our future.  

Equally, we have a long coastline that is difficult to secure and small, high endurance maritime surveillance vehicles could provide significant advantages over expensive aerial surveillance vehicles. 

For journalists: If you would like to speak to Douglas Guilfoyle further on this topic to assist your reporting, you can contact him here.

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