Japan takes its autonomous shipping to the next level

Japan’s maritime industry is taking significant strides towards the full-scale commercialization of fully autonomous ships, thanks to the MEGURI2040 Fully Autonomous Ship Project. This collaborative effort, administered by the Nippon Foundation and involving 51 companies under the Designing the Future of Fully Autonomous Ships Plus consortium (DFFAS+), aims to revolutionize the coastal shipping industry and lead the international competition in autonomous ship technology.

Cargo ship Hokurenmaru No.2; iMAGE CREDIT k LINE

The program is now moving into the second stage, building upon the advancements made during the first stage which involved several sea trials on board vessels providing real-time experience and insight into the readiness of the technology.

The MEGURI2040 Fully Autonomous Ship Project has outlined four primary goals to achieve full-scale commercialization of fully autonomous ships by 2025:

Image credit K Line
  1. Demonstration Test: The program includes designing next-generation ships capable of supporting the coastal shipping industry. It will conduct a comprehensive demonstration of ship-land operations to simulate the future coastal shipping environment facilitated by fully autonomous ships. This test will involve four different types of ships, including a newly built fully autonomous container ship, an existing container ship, a Roll-on/Roll-off (RORO) cargo ship, and a remote island route ship with partial autonomous operation capabilities. Additionally, two Fleet Operation Centers will be employed to manage these autonomous vessels effectively.
  2. Standardization of Developed Technologies: To further refine the fully autonomous ship technology developed during the first stage, the project aims to standardize these technologies into international standards. This approach aims to strengthen Japan’s maritime industry and position the country as a leader in the global competition for autonomous ship technology.
  3. Reinforcement of Development Process Infrastructure: Building upon the development process infrastructure established in the first stage, the program wants to further reinforce it by upgrading simulation technology and conducting general risk assessments. These measures aim to ensure the robustness and reliability of fully autonomous ship technology.
  4. Social Implementation: The MEGURI2040 project aims to commercialize an autonomous navigation system, including a land-based monitoring system, and establish a certification scheme necessary for its commercialization. The project also focuses on improving the environment for social implementation, including the establishment of international and domestic rules for fully autonomous ships, human resource requirements and training methods to accommodate new working styles, deregulation strategies to support continuous commercial use, and assessing insurance and freight rates for autonomous ships.
Image credit MOL


The Japanese ‘big three’ companies, MOL, NYK and K Line, and their respective subsidiaries, are joining the efforts.

K LINE is collaborating with other industry leaders, including Japan Radio Co., and YDK Technologies Co. to retrofit the existing RORO cargo ship ‘Hokuren Maru No.2’ with unmanned and autonomous navigation capabilities. The company wants to replicate the sequence of piloting actions previously conducted using cutting-edge AI technology and other advancements.

The project’s goals align with addressing social issues in Japan’s coastal shipping industry, such as reducing labor shortages and workloads, preventing maritime accidents, and maintaining remote island shipping routes.

NYK, Japan Marine Science Inc., and MTI Co. are also taking part in the stage of the project.

“NYK participated in the first stage of MEGURI2040 as one of the companies in the DFFAS Consortium, the predecessor of DFFAS+, and will continue to support the two companies that are the PMOs (Project Management Offices) leading DFFAS+ by dispatching maritime officers/engineers to Japan Marine Science Inc. and MTI Co., Ltd. to provide shipping expertise,” the company said.

Mitsui O.S.K. Lines is set to take part in the second stage of the program as well. The company will establish a working group that will oversee a sea trial on an existing container ship, integrating it with an autonomous operation system.

The primary objective of this working group is to address any issues identified during the initial stage of the project. They aim to significantly enhance the quality of the autonomous operation system, seeking to demonstrate that it can perform on par with a skilled navigation officer. Ultimately, this advancement is expected to reduce the workload during navigation watch, thereby ensuring smoother and safer journeys for crew and cargo alike.

To accomplish these goals, the working group comprises several key companies, each with specific roles and responsibilities tailored to their expertise. Mitsui E&S Shipbuilding Co. will be focusing on improving the accuracy of the “judgement” and “operation” functions. This includes tasks such as avoidance route calculation, collision avoidance operation routing, as well as automated ship operation in port and automated berthing/unberthing operation.

Furuno Electric Co. will concentrate on enhancing the accuracy of the “recognition” and “judgement” functions. This involves integrating data from various sensors, incorporating image recognition capabilities, and refining avoidance route calculations, all while integrating a sophisticated remote monitoring system.

Finally, Imoto Lines will provide the necessary test ship and crew members for the sea trial. Additionally, they will be actively involved in developing the ship operation plan and defining specific requirements concerning navigation support, particularly in the areas of watch and voyage planning.