First autonomous test of navigation and docking on a container ship

Mikage, a 1,870 DWT container ship, completed the autonomous tests (MOL)

Posted on January 25, 2022 at 3:31 p.m. by

The Maritime Executive

A Japanese container ship has completed the world’s first sea trial for unmanned navigation with a container ship including docking and undocking. The test, which was conducted by companies in the Mitsui Group, is part of an ongoing demonstration program sponsored by the Nippon Foundation to develop autonomous transportation.

The container ship trial was undertaken by Mitsui OSK Lines using a seven-year-old coastal container ship, the mikage, which is operated by Imoto Lines. The 1,870 dwt vessel, which is 313 feet long and has a carrying capacity of 194 TEUs, has been fitted with a series of systems developed by consortium partners. The test voyage was made on January 24 and 25, departing from the port of Tsuruga on the Sea of ​​Japan and traveling about 161 nautical miles to arrive at the port of Sakai near Osaka.

For autonomous navigation, the vessel followed a previously formulated route using a system developed by Mitsui E&S Shipbuilding which made the judgments overseeing the operations. Among the elements taken into account in the system were precise location information, various external elements such as wind, tides and currents, as well as vessel-specific information on its configuration, maneuverability and ability to accelerate and decelerate. Furuno Electric developed an autonomous system which, by integrating radar, camera images and AIS data, provided details of other vessels and obstacles near the vessel.

According to the consortium, one of the most difficult parts of the journey was the autonomous docking and unberthing which requires particularly delicate handling. Furuno Electric has developed a support sensor system which, using data from LiDAR, cameras and a satellite compass, visually calculates and displays the relative distances and angles between the jetty and the hull.

A drone was used to assist in the docking of the container ship (MOL)

Normally there would be crew members on the ship to provide visual confirmation during the berthing operation and also to pass the ship’s mooring lines to the stevedores to moor the ship. For this trial, ALI Technologies developed the mooring support technology, which uses drones to transport the line to the pier.

The MEGURI 2040 fully autonomous ship navigation project began in February 2020 with the Nippon Foundation overseeing five different consortia that are each developing systems and will conduct demonstrations in the first months of 2022 on their fully autonomous navigation system concepts. The goal of the project is to use autonomous navigation systems to solve the problems of improving safety, reducing crew manpower requirements and reducing costs. Last week, Mitsubishi Shipbuilding demonstrated a system on a large car ferry.

Mitsui’s project includes conducting sea trials with two different types of vessels, a container ship and a ferry, to identify similarities and differences in their navigation and increase the versatility of the technology. It was also the first test that integrated docking operations with the use of drones.

In February, the Mitsui Group plans to test its autonomous navigation system on a coastal car ferry, the 21-year-old Sunflower Shiretoko. The 11,400 gross ton ferry owned by MOL Ferry has different characteristics from the coastal container ship and aims to operate a voyage between Tomakomai in northern Japan and Oarai in central Japan.

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