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Vessel operators setting course for automated navigation

Vessel operators setting course for automated navigation
Takeho Morita and Hideaki Ishiyama January 26, 2018

In one room, a ship's captain swiftly directs his crew to avoid an approaching fishing boat and a container ship. In another room, an automated system flashes a red lamp to warn of dangers from approaching vessels and avoid collisions.

The simulation was conducted to see if the collision prevention system that is being developed can make as appropriate judgments as “skilled” captains. The system will be improved based on the results, so it can be tested on a ship by the end of 2019.

“The practical introduction of the system will lead to a reduced burden on sailors, helping prevent accidents,” said an official of Nippon Yusen KK, known as NYK Line, which conducted the testing in hopes of eventually introducing a self-operating vessel.

Shipping companies in Japan and abroad are developing self-operating technology for vessels, as the transport ministry is looking to have Japanese corporations take the initiative to introduce international standards for automatic navigation systems.

Aggressive research activities are now being carried out in the shipping industry, such as in the auto industry, to allow vessels to navigate waters on their own, with firms across the world successively starting tests of self-sailing technologies.

The move is aimed at lessening the burdens on the crew to improve safety with an eye on developing unmanned vessels in the future.

The Japanese transport ministry is proceeding with discussions in hopes of putting automatic sailing technology into practical use by 2025.

Under an automatic navigation system, obstacles will be located and vessel-mounted equipment checked and maintained remotely from an inland facility, using information and computing technology (ICT) and other techniques. The vessel will be operated with the help of artificial intelligence.

Behind the trend is the increasing number of merchant ships across the globe.

The number of merchant vessels for 2015 rose to 1.5 times that for 1980 as the Malacca Strait and other major channels have become increasingly congested.

As nearly half of vessel collision cases are said to be attributed to human error, shipping companies have begun to develop the self-operating technology based on advanced ICT to significantly reduce accidents.

Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. started full-scale research in November 2016 and plans to carry out a joint trial of a new sensor to detect obstacles with Britain’s Rolls-Royce Marine in the Seto Inland Sea by the end of this year.

“Saving the crew members the trouble of being on watch duty will allow them to concentrate on other tasks,” said a Mitsui public relations official. “That will also result in an improved working environment.”

Meanwhile, Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd. ("K" Line) is collecting navigation data from 100 vessels equipped with a special system.

Companies outside Japan are also actively working to develop automatic ship operation systems.

While Norwegian fertilizer maker Yara International ASA and other parties are looking to commercializing a technology to remotely control ships from inland facilities by 2019, Rolls-Royce aims to realize an unmanned vessel operation system by 2035.


In December, the Japanese transport ministry began discussions on self-operating vessels.

With the aim of making available a system to remotely control part of operations of ships by 2025, the ministry will conduct communications and other tests jointly with private businesses in fiscal 2018 starting in April.

Tokyo intends to make Japan’s automated navigation system specifications international standards, as the U.N.-run International Maritime Organization is expected to begin developing international rules on systems and equipment this year.

Since Japan is home to many shipping firms and shipbuilders, as well as engine and gauge makers, a ministry official said the introduction of criteria friendly to Japanese corporations will greatly benefit the nation’s economy.

“If Japan can take the initiative to set rules, Japanese companies will be able to quickly respond to them, bringing about very favorable effects on the industry,” said an official of the Safety Policy Division of the ministry’s Maritime Bureau.

However, there remain many obstacles to overcome to put automated navigation systems into practical use.

In the ocean, vessels can approach from all directions. Ships’ operations are strongly affected by wind and waves, making it difficult to establish preset patterns for avoiding obstacles.

In addition, as vessels are much larger and heavier than cars and have no brakes, they cannot stop or turn suddenly.

“The current technology has already reached a level where unmanned ships are able to navigate waters with no objects around them,” said Etsuro Shimizu, a control engineering professor at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology.

“But when other vessels are operating nearby, they need to be visually checked by the crew,” he said. “There are high hurdles to introducing unmanned ships.”