House Subcommittee Meets to Discuss Autonomous Maritime Technology, Submarines

On Tuesday, September 19th, the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation met to discuss the use of autonomous technologies by the United States Coast Guard and maritime industry.

While multiple national and international entities have a role in maritime regulation and operations, the US Coast Guard is the agency responsible for “ensur[ing] the Nation’s maritime safety, security, and stewardship,” which includes serving as the lead agency for safeguarding the marine transportation system (MTS) and developing prevention and response frameworks for the use of autonomous and experimental marine technology. With the US Coast Guard as the lead, the maritime industry is exploring many of the critical issues surrounding autonomous technology applications such as impacts to labor, safety, efficiency, and competitiveness.

Chairman Daniel Webster (R-FL) convened the committee to hear testimony on the current state of autonomous technology within the maritime industry and to discuss related challenges and opportunities. While the majority of the hearing was focused on the use of automated systems in maritime transportation, one panelist testified about the June 2023 Ocean Gate Titan submersible tragedy. There was a consensus in the room that smart regulation is critical to maritime transportation and exploration.

Panel I

Panel II

  • Sean Pribyl, Committee Member, Committee on Coast Guard Maritime Domain Awareness, National Academy of Sciences Report, “Leveraging Unmanned Systems for Coast Guard Missions”
  • Michael Johnson, Chief Executive Officer, Sea Machines Robotics Inc.
  • Patrick Lahey, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Triton Submarines
  • T. Christian Spain, Vice President of Government Relations, American Maritime Officers

Marine Technology and Coast Guard Activities

In 2021, the maritime industry accounted for 1.9 percent of the US gross domestic product (GDP) and generated 2.3 million jobs in the marine sector. While critical to the economy, the US maritime industry has declined over time, impacting the sector’s competitiveness globally. In the testimony provided, Michael Johnson, the Chief Executive Officer for Sea Machines Robotics Inc., discussed the US’s slipping influence in global maritime. The US now ranks 14th in global cargo fleet ownership, a decline in rank from previous years. Autonomous maritime systems have emerged as a way to increase US competitiveness and enable mariners to perform their jobs more precisely and safely, with less effort, and with lower cost.

As mentioned previously, the USCG, housed under the Department of Homeland Security, is the primary entity tasked with maritime safety and security. The acceleration of autonomous systems in recent years has created a need for response and regulation of the maritime industry. The USCG has taken steps to address these needs through strategies and programs including the creation of a strategic plan for unmanned systems, the exploration of unmanned system applications for maritime security, engagement with governmental and international entities as well as industry stakeholders for the development of policy guidelines, and continued research and development activities.

Current Automated Applications

Within his testimony, Rear Admiral Weimers touched on the current applications of unmanned systems within the US Coast Guard. The agency has recently deployed unmanned vessels to evaluate the impact on illegal migration and drug trafficking in the form of uncrewed surface assets in the Caribbean and off the coast of Southern California that are contractor owned and operated. In addition, USCG also has unmanned aircraft systems in the form of aircraft capabilities.

The USCG currently employs three types of unmanned aircraft, including short-, medium-, and long-range systems – the latter of which are part of a joint program with Customs and Border Protection. Each serves a unique purpose in enforcement, but a major benefit has been seen in drug seizures. In an exchange with Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), Rear Admiral Wiemers discussed the use of MQ-9 Guardian aircrafts in the confiscation of 26,000 kilograms of cocaine since 2018.

Research and Development

While the Coast Guard’s use of unmanned systems to date has largely focused on aerial uses, the agency and industry leaders see maritime opportunities to accomplish USCG’s strategic goals, such as increased efficiency and economic competitiveness.

The Coast Guard has multiple programs for the development of automated systems, including the congressionally supported and newly authorized, At Sea Recovery Operations Pilot Program, the Unmanned System Program and Autonomous Control and Computer Vision Technology Project embedded in the 2022 reauthorization, counter-Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) monitoring (set to expire at the end of the month, unless reauthorized), and others.

Strategic Planning and Policy

In March of 2023, the USCG, under the direction of Vice Admiral Peter W. Gautier, released the Unmanned Systems Strategic Plan which discusses many of the challenges, opportunities, responsibilities, and obligations for unmanned systems within the maritime industry. The report states that unmanned systems can: 1) increase capacity to detect illicit drug and migrant trafficking at sea, 2) serve as a tool in the monitoring of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, 3) aid in the navigation of icebreakers and tracking of icebergs, and 4) monitor the growth of other commercial activities.

The strategic plan lays out goals and considerations for the use of this technology with the ultimate goal of ensuring safety of life at sea, security of waterways, protection of marine environments, and efficient movement of goods, which were goals reiterated by Rear Admirals Wayne R. Aguin Jr. and Todd Wiemers during the hearing.

Beyond the strategic planning process, the Coast Guard is taking additional steps to develop a policy framework for the use of unmanned systems, and one of these tools is the Automated and Autonomous Vessel Policy Council. According to Rear Admiral Arguin, the council is an outward facing body responsible for evaluating the regulatory framework that exists today to identify gaps and determine necessary training requirements for the industry overall. Relying on collaboration with the international community, the council will propose any needed policy or law changes to support technology expansion, and the Coast Guard has an additional program evaluating internal adjustments. Under the larger umbrella of policy updates, the Coast Guard is also in the process of issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to address the related cybersecurity responsibilities.

Challenges and Opportunities

Disruptive technology does precisely that – it disrupts the industry in which it is developing. As the Coast Guard and maritime industry explore the development of the industry with the addition of automated capabilities, the panelists conveyed concerns about challenges and opportunities in this space for the sector. Labor issues, use of data, regulatory barriers, and limited budgets were all mentioned as challenges for maritime transportation and security.

Labor Issues

Labor issues within maritime autonomy are two-fold. Both were touched upon by the panelist representing labor issues, T. Christian Spain, the Vice President of Government Relations for the American Maritime Officers. The first piece encompasses the traditional labor and technology relationship, which can lead to a changing labor force and shifting of jobs in a more technical direction. The promise of technology can also be burdensome, as the updated systems can be costly for companies and owners in upfront costs and continued maintenance and troubleshooting. Spain conveyed industry concerns that automated technologies could negatively impact seafarers and shipping companies.

The added layer in the labor conversation is related to the COLREGs, the maritime equivalent of the “rules of the road”. Under these standards, there are things required by mariners such as rendering aid to others in distress, and there are differing legal interpretations as to whether an uncrewed vessel can be held to, or meet expectations within, the same standards as manned vessels (e.g., meeting the requirement of rendering aid).

Data

Autonomous technology generates vast amounts of data daily which can be challenging to secure and regulate. In 2021, the Coast Guard created an Office of Data & Analytics to manage data, but the agency has been slow to turn data over into meaningful information, still working on creating a data architecture. There is a significant opportunity to share data between agencies, such as the Navy, Customs and Border Protection, and others with similar security missions, and generate actionable information from intel, but per a 2023 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, most agency gaps within the Coast Guard are related to the collection and use of data.

Budget and Red Tape

Rear Admiral Arguin plainly stated during the hearing that the Coast Guard’s regulatory framework was not flexible or nimble enough to keep pace with technology, and other panelists reinforced this idea in their discussions. When probed by Rep Jake Auchincloss (D-MA), Johnson mentioned a few challenges and slowdowns due to the regulatory framework and lagging movement by the US Coast Guard: the slow rollout of a test fleet by the Coast Guard, the lack of flexibility in its regulatory framework, and the sometimes tedious approval process for deploying technology.

Sea Machines Robotics, Inc. runs daily tests with their automated fleet, but the Coast Guard is said to be lagging in testing capacity. Additionally, detailing the approval process for an automated harbor tug, Johnson said the company has been in a year and a half long (and counting) process for operation authorization. Although he detailed the difficulties for technology rollout, Johnson was also quick to reiterate that industry leaders do want to deploy responsibly and deliberately and emphasized his view that the Coast Guard is navigating this area with a limited budget and significant responsibility.

Path Forward

Along with the existing labor complications and legal barriers, the panelists seemed highly optimistic about potential returns and efficiencies of automated systems. Rear Admirals Arguin and Weimers both acknowledged the need for the Coast Guard to develop a more flexible regulatory framework and work with national and international governmental entities, and private stakeholders, to develop a new policy outline for the maritime industry. Other panelists were quick to note that things like strong data practices, an increased budget, Coast Guard and congressional leadership in technology development, and increased and consistent testing of automated systems are opportunity areas for this sector. But with some adjustments on these fronts, the US could have an opportunity to reposition itself as a leader in the maritime system.

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