Cabotage and unmanned vessels

Found an interesting article today about remotely operated land vehicles carrying cargo between US destinations while being piloted from Colombia. Small scale for now but this has troubling implications. For labor, safety, and security reasons unmanned vehicles should be subject to cabotage be they land, sea, or air. Does the Jones Act already cover autonomous or remotely piloted vessels?

Read the Act and answer your own question.

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How would it meet the “US crewed” requirement if there is no crew… I’m thinking no on the coastwise autonomous ships in the US…

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There are more requirements in the Jones Act than just being “US crewed”.

I’m not stupid and am well aware of that… but I’m equally doubtful that any of the other requirements could be met by US shipowners and shipyards (or would even be attempted by them without it being proven technology already).

I lean on the crewing requirement though because the Jones act is very specific on that when it comes to cabotage. Unmanned ships weren’t even in their wildest dreams back in the ‘20’s…

It appears the Air Force refers to the operators of their unmanned drones to be the drone’s crew. So as long as the person(s) directing autonomous drone ships were Americans would that not meet the US Crew standard of the Act?

I would think that if they’re remotely operated, probably so… but if they’re fully autonomous, that seems to be a gray area that the unions would probably lobby hard to make into a hard no.

I think the Air Force does that as one of those “me too” things like the navy SWO pins looking like dolphins. They are a participation trophy for video gamers.

As far as crew is concerned, if there is no crew onboard or even required than there is no way crew requirements can apply.

More applicable is the US build and ownership parts of the Act. Maybe if an American entrepreneur had an autonomous ship built and flagged in the USA but contracted an operator in a virtual ship driving shop in Bumfukistan it would end up in the Supreme Court. Depending on the entrepreneur’s campaign contribution history it may or may not float.

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I’m surprised our Norwegian friends have not jumped in this conversation, as Norway is leading the charge on developing autonomous shipping through Rolls-Royce (Kongsberg) and Yara, with heavy buy-in from their government, DNV-GL, and other stakeholders. They have recognized the need for regulations to catch up, including through working with the IMO.

Here is an interesting paper discussing that the future will rely heavily on individual nations to adapt their regulations, and pointing out that in some cases it will be easier to add new specific regulation than to modify existing… Maritime Law in the Wake of The Unmanned Vessel

As for the US: The CFRs and USC are bit cumbersome to navigate.

46USC Ch 81 indicates the COI specifies the minimum number of officers and crew “necessary for safe operation.” That number could be zero were it not for 46CFR 15. The citizenship requirement states that only a US citizen may serve the specified positions, not that those positions must exist.

46CFR Ch 15 says the COI does not supersede statutory requirements, which are outlined in this chapter as minimum mates and engineers required onboard based on tonnage and horsepower, etc. So that would be your sticking point that would need to change, or have new regs to cover autonomous shipping.

Seems like a useful endeavor for the US Maritime Administration, if only they were so motivated, capable, or competent…


Im sure they are working on it, but I haven’t seen any new laws concerning unmanned vessel or news articles about it. And IMO is a slooooow giant to work with.

Therein lies the rub.

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