MOL: World’s 1st autonomous sea trial of commercial boxship completed

A Japanese consortium including shipping company Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL) has concluded the world’s first sea trial of unmanned ship operation from port to port as part of the unmanned ship project MEGURI2040 led by The Nippon Foundation.

“Mikage” Coastal Container Ship Used for the Trial of Autonomous Sailing Trial. Photo: MOL

Apart from MOL, the consortium comprises its two group companies Mol Ferry and MOL Marine & Engineering and partners Mitsui E&S Shipbuilding, Furuno Electric, Imoto Lines, and A.L.I. Technologies.

The trial on 24 and 25 January commenced from Tsuruga Port in Fukui Prefecture and concluded in Sakai Port in Tottori Prefecture.

As informed by MOL, the consortium conducted the sea trial with two different type of ships — a coastal containership and a coastal car ferry. The goal is to use the results to develop versatile technologies by identifying similarities and differences between the two ship types.

What is more, the consortium conducted mooring tests using a drone in a move toward automated mooring operation. Since MEGURI2040’s inception in 2020, the consortium has conducted various elemental experiments to realize autonomous ship operation. In October 2021, MOL Marine & Engineering conducted a safety verification test using its owned 3D simulator before this sea trial.

“Automated Mooring” using an Automatic Flight Drone. Photo: MOL

For autonomous navigation, the ships followed a previously formulated route using the MES-S-developed autonomous ship operation control system, in consideration of the following elements:

  • Accurately grasp ship location information
  • Various external elements such as wind and tides/currents
  • Ship handling performance specific to each ship (maneuverability, conditions of acceleration and deceleration)/configuration of ship handing equipment
  • Navigation rules applied to ships.

Information on other ships and obstacles/debris on the set route was gathered by the Furuno Electric-developed autonomous surrounding information integration system. Based on the integrated information, the ship navigated the safe route formulated by the autonomous collision avoidance routing system, MOL said.

Autonomous berthing and unberthing require especially delicate handling, so the ship berthed and unberthed using information from the Furuno Electric-developed berthing/unberthing support sensor.

“Automated mooring” is an element of the consortium’s project. Normally, a crewmember on the ship passes the heaving line — to moor the ship in port — by throwing it to a worker on the pier. In this sea trial, the A.L.I.-developed automatic flight drone carried the line to the pier. As technology advances in the future, this is expected to become an alternative approach to mooring operations, which is a heavy burden on seafarers.

In order to develop highly versatile technologies, the consortium plans a sea trial of autonomous navigation using the coastal car ferry Sunflower Shiretoko, which has different characteristics from the coastal containership.

The consortium said it aims to reduce the workload on seafarers and ensure safe, secure marine traffic, through MEGURI2040 initiatives to realize autonomous sailing.

Earlier this month, another Japanese consortium concluded a pilot project with the aim to establish the technology for autonomous ship operations. The project is also part of MEGURI2040.

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What is more, a demonstration test of what is said to be the world’s first fully autonomous ship navigation systems on a large car ferry was completed last week. Mitsubishi Shipbuilding and Shin Nihonkai Ferry demonstrated the fully autonomous navigation system on a 222-meter ferry, with autonomous port berthing and unberthing using turning and reversing movements and high-speed navigation.

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