Unmanned containership uses drone to handle heaving line

Written by Nick Blenkey
Ship with drone near bridge

Automated mooring trial used drone to carry heaving line ashore, [Image: MOL]

A Japanese consortium coordinated by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd. (MOL) has successfully concluded what’s claimed as a world-first port-to-port unmanned containership sea trial.

The trial took place between Tsuruga Port in Fukui Prefecture and Sakai Port in Tottori Prefecture on January 24 and 25 as part of a project led by the Nippon Foundation.

The consortium is conducting sea trials with two different types of ships—a coastal containership and a coastal car ferry—aiming to use the results to develop versatile technologies by identifying similarities and differences between the two ship types.

The initial trial, with the Imoto Ship Company coastal containership Mikage was not limited to simply getting a unmanned vessel from port to port. It also covered autonomous berthing/unberthing and automated mooring—using a drone to carry the heaving line ashore.


For autonomous navigation, the ship followed a previously formulated route using the autonomous ship operation control system developed by consortium member Mitsui E&S Shipbuilding Co., Ltd.

Information on other ships and obstacles/debris on the set route was gathered by consortium member Furuno Electric’s autonomous surrounding information integration system. This 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 safely navigated the route formulated by the autonomous collision avoidance routing system.


Autonomous berthing and unberthing require delicate handling, so the ship berthed and unberthed using information from the Furuno Electric-developed berthing/unberthing support solution. This 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: In this sea trial, an A.L.I. Technologies-developed automatic flight drone carried the heaving 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.


Trials using MOL Ferry’s coastal car ferry Sunflower Shiretoko between the ports of Tomokimai and Oarai are set for next month.

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