Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL) has concluded a trial of unmanned ship operation from port to port with a coastal container ship. The Mikage sailed from Tsuruga Port to Sakai Port in Japan. A berthing/unberthing support sensor was used for autonomous mooring and a drone carried the heaving line to shore.

The trial took place on 24 and 25 January and is part of the unmanned ship project MEGURI2040 led by The Nippon Foundation. In addition to the trial with the container ship, a second trial will take place with a coastal car ferry in February. For this second one, the Sunflower Shiretoko, owned by MOL Ferry, will be used. The project aims to use the results of both trials to develop versatile technologies by identifying similarities and differences between the two ship types.

Since MEGURI2040’s inception in 2020, the consortium has conducted various elemental experiments to realise autonomous ship operation. In October 2021, MOL conducted a safety verification test using its owned 3D simulator before this sea trial.

Also read: MOL to test algorithms aimed at autonomous ship collision avoidance

Ship operation control and collision avoidance

For autonomous navigation, the ships followed a previously formulated route using the Mitsui E&S Shipbuilding-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 (manoeuvrability, conditions of acceleration and deceleration)/configuration of ship handing equipment; and 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 (measures and displays positions, speed, types of nearby ships, and position of obstacles/debris by integrating information gained by cognition through radar, AIS, and camera images). Based on the integrated information, the ship navigated the route formulated by the autonomous collision avoidance routing system.

Autonomous berthing and heaving line by drone

Autonomous berthing and unberthing require especially delicate handling, so the ship berthed and unberthed using information from the berthing/unberthing support sensor developed by Furuno Electric (equipment that calculates and visually displays accurate relative distances and relative angles between the pier and hull from information gathered by LiDAR/camera/satellite compass).

Automated mooring is an element of the consortium’s project. Normally, a crew member 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.

Picture: Mikage coastal container ship used for the autonomous sailing trial.

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