Novel and emerging technologies that offer potential opportunities for both the U.S. Coast Guard and commercial shipping can also present unique governance challenges and must be carefully assessed for vulnerabilities, Assistant Commandant for Prevention Policy Rear Admiral Wayne R. Arguin Jr. and Assistant Commandant for Capability Rear Admiral Todd Wiemers told Congress on Tuesday.
Arguin and Wiemers testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation hearing on Use and Regulation of Autonomous and Experimental Maritime Technologies, which Chairman Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) said was timely and critical as these technologies “promise to revolutionize many processes while drastically changing the operations of our current marine transportation system.”
“It is imperative the Coast Guard develop a stable regulatory framework for the safe operation of these technologies. This is no longer in-the-future technology. The technology is here,” Webster said. “…In light of the totally preventable tragedy of the Titan submersible earlier this year, prompt attention to governing evolving maritime technologies is essential to avoid a similar disaster in the future.”
“It is important to foster innovation while also protecting lives,” Ranking Member Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) said. “The passengers onboard the Titan were not designated as passengers by Oceangate — the owners of the submersible. Rather, they were referred to as a crew, which allowed the company to subvert legal consequences. In addition, the submersible was not classed, was flagged to the Bahamas, and used materials and designs that had been rejected as unsafe by the rest of the industry.”
“I am an advocate for passenger and crew safety and we should all demand the utmost regard for safety to apply to any new technology, submersible, or autonomous vessels,” he added.
Arguin and Wiemers told lawmakers in their joint prepared remarks that “the opportunities presented by emerging technology could significantly benefit the Marine Transportation System (MTS).”
“Technological advancements — such as autonomous systems — can evolve global transportation systems and provide novel solutions for ongoing and future challenges, including growing cybersecurity vulnerabilities, supply chain disruptions, navigational challenges, and interference with communication, information, and operational technology systems,” they said. “With these advancements comes the potential for new and different vulnerabilities which should also be carefully considered. The Coast Guard will closely evaluate the emergence of autonomous and experimental technology, and encourage the growth of technology by updating standards, policies, and regulations.”
The Coast Guard released its Unmanned Systems Strategic Plan this past March, which detailed initiatives and partnerships to chart the path forward for the use of air and sea drones to protect the country’s maritime borders. “The Coast Guard’s vision for the future is to not only establish a regulatory framework to ensure a safe and efficient MTS but to also actively defend against nefarious use of unmanned systems and to use unmanned systems to improve execution of the Service’s 11 statutory missions,” Arguin and Wiemers said.
Currently, the Coast Guard uses long-range UAS capabilities in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection for border security, Coast Guard National Security Cutters use medium-range UAS for tactical aerial surveillance and reconnaissance, and short-range UAS are utilized as force multipliers for operations including post-storm assessments, law enforcement, pollution response, port and facility inspections, aids to navigation, and near-shore maritime domain awareness.
The Coast Guard “does not possess organic unmanned surface capabilities,” the assistant commandants noted, but “the Service is learning how these capabilities can enhance mission execution” and recently utilized data from unmanned surface vehicles in the Caribbean and Southern California. “The Service is evaluating the USVs’ performance for potential future use,” they said, and “the rapid commercialization of these technologies … will likely provide greater access for affordable experimentation and deployments in the near future.”
The Coast Guard is also mindful of the need to effectively store, process, analyze, visualize, and convert data gleaned from sensors on unmanned technology in order to support rapid decision making.
“The widespread availability and low cost of unmanned systems means nefarious actors may see opportunities to use UAS to disrupt Coast Guard operations, conduct illicit activities, or jeopardize the flow of commerce while avoiding detection or attribution,” Arguin and Wiemers continued. “In response, the Coast Guard has rapidly acquired counter-UAS (C-UAS) capabilities. These capabilities are deployable ashore and afloat.” They would only elaborate on those capabilities in greater detail in a closed session.
In addition to studying and maximizing emerging technologies’ applications to Coast Guard uses, USCG is also “monitoring and assessing” novel uses of autonomous and experimental maritime technology across the maritime transportation system.
“For example, data collection platforms are being increasingly used within the MTS by companies leveraging autonomous technologies to conduct unmanned surveying operations. While many of these survey platforms are relatively small, some companies are exploring using larger platforms that may present greater potential risks to other waterway users,” the assistant commandants said. “The Coast Guard is focused on effectively managing the increasing use of these platforms on our waterways. In addition to survey platforms, the maritime industry is also considering remote-control operations on smaller commercial vessels (e.g., tugs) to improve maritime commerce efficiency.”
“As current statutory and regulatory regimes for commercial maritime operations are predicated on mariners being onboard vessels, the Coast Guard is working to develop suitable international and domestic governance frameworks to integrate autonomous and remote-control technologies safely and properly into the maritime domain,” they continued. “Internationally, the Coast Guard is leading U.S. efforts in ongoing discussions within the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to develop a code for safe, secure, and environmentally sound operation of maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS) within existing IMO instruments. Domestically, the Coast Guard-chartered Automated and Autonomous Vessel Policy Council is identifying gaps within U.S. laws, regulations, and policies and developing clear and consistent guidance regarding autonomous and remote-controlled technology for the maritime industry and marine inspectors.”
Another emerging technology area being monitored by the Coast Guard is ships’ increasing use of alternative fuels and propulsion technologies. USCG is “heavily engaged in ongoing efforts at the IMO to develop suitable requirements for these alternative fuel options,” leveraging the recent LNG-centered International Code of Safety for Ships Using Gases or Other Low Flashpoint Fuels (IGF Code) to guide the use of methanol and fuel cells, hydrogen, ammonia, and low flashpoint diesel.
“While these alternative fuels share many similarities, each has its own unique risks and challenges that must specifically be addressed to ensure safe use as a maritime fuel,” Arguin and Wiemers said. “With limited exceptions, current domestic regulations do not address safe use of alternative fuels. However, they authorize the Coast Guard to consider equivalents to regulatory design standards to evaluate proposals for the use of new technologies and alternative fuels onboard ships… The challenges associated with learning to design, operate, maintain, and inspect multiple fuel systems at the same time cannot be understated, but the Coast Guard is committed to working with industry to ensure it is done safely.”
Submersibles are another technology being “increasingly employed in commercial maritime operations for activities such as underwater exploration, offshore structure maintenance, and underwater salvage.”
“Their versatility and advanced technology make them a valuable capability” but submersibles, such as the Titan craft that imploded in June while taking tourists down to the Titanic wreck, “also pose unique governance challenges,” the USCG leaders said.
“These challenges can be overcome through transparency and collaboration to develop necessary and timely standards to meet the needs of the public,” they added. “The Coast Guard continuously evaluates our ability to assess new technologies and novel uses and is committed to working with industry leaders to develop new standards and leverage existing standards to ensure the safety of these vessels and the individuals that operate them.”
Arguin and Wiemers also noted challenges with evolving Wing-In-Ground (WIG) craft technology, a low-altitude craft supported by aerodynamic forces that flies above the water surface. “While the use of WIG craft presents potential opportunities, WIG craft technology is novel and there are few Coast Guard and no Federal Aviation Administration regulations or other industry standards specifically pertaining to their design, construction, or operation, though FAA regulations governing aircraft would still apply to WIGs that operate within FAA’s statutory jurisdiction,” they said. “WIG craft are, in essence, high-speed craft operating at low altitude over the water. There will be significant challenges integrating WIG operations with existing maritime traffic schemes.”
“Further, due to the unique blend of maritime and aviation principles on which they rely for operation, the design, construction, pilotage, operation, maintenance, and inspection of WIG craft are beyond the Coast Guard’s expertise,” the assistant commandants added. “Successfully addressing the challenges associated with this technology will require the Coast Guard to rely on interagency partners who have the requisite experience, competency, and regulatory authority to evaluate the aviation aspects associated with WIG craft.”
Arguin and Wiemers stressed that emerging technologies also broaden the attack surface in the cyber realm. “We must be cognizant of the fact that every new capability that leverages cyberspace also presents additional risk of cyberattacks by malicious actors, which could threaten the MTS,” they said.