NYK conducts ‘world’s first’ trial of autonomous ships

Iris Leader. Credit: Dietmar Hasenpusch

Japanese shipping group NYK has conducted ‘the world’s first’ trial of fully autonomous ships.  

One of its car carriers, Iris Leader, was navigated using the Sherpa System for Real (SSR) ship navigation system, from Xinsha, China, to the Japanese ports of Nagoya and Yokohama, from 14 to 20 September 2019, without any incident. 

The ship’s crew performed other non-navigational duties during the trial. 

During the test, the SSR’s performance in actual sea conditions was monitored as it collected information on environmental conditions around the ship from existing navigational devices, calculated collision risk, automatically determined optimal routes and speeds that were safe and economical, and then automatically navigated the ship. Using data and experience gained through the trial but not obtainable through onshore simulators, NYK was able to ensure that the SSR was feasible and benefited safe and optimal operations.  

NYK said that this trial was a big step towards realising its goal of manned autonomous ships. The company will analyse the data and continue to develop the SSR into a more advanced navigation-support system by making adjustments to the difference between the optimal course derived by the programme and  professional human judgment. 

The SSR verified by this trial will also be applied to future coastal ships, which currently face serious crew shortages.  

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) aims to bring the operation of autonomous ships within the existing IMO regulatory framework. A scoping exercise was initiated at the 98th meeting of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) in June 2017 with the aim of identifying which provisions (in an agreed list of IMO instruments) may or may not be applicable to ships of varying degrees of autonomy. The list of instruments includes those covering safety (SOLAS), collision regulations (COLREG), loading and stability (Load Lines), training of seafarers and fishers, search and rescue (SAR), tonnage measurement (Tonnage Convention), and special trade passenger ship instruments. 

The IMO approved the framework for the regulatory scoping exercise, including the plan of work and procedures, for maritime autonomous surface vessels at the MSC 100, which took place at IMO headquarters in London on 3–7 December 2018.