TOKYO -- Mitsui O.S.K. Lines and Rolls-Royce are partnering to develop autonomous shipping technology, starting with a feasibility study in Japanese waters.
The Japanese shipping company and British engine manufacturer envision a system that uses sensors to avoid collisions. The advanced sensors, developed by Rolls-Royce and based on technology known as lidar -- light detection and ranging -- can recognize other ships and track their movements more accurately than ordinary radar.
The partners plan to test the sensors on Mitsui's Sunflower ferry, which links the western Japanese city of Kobe to Oita in the south of the country.
Lidar involves 3-D analysis of lasers reflected by ships and other objects. The new system combines lidar with optic cameras, GPS and information gathered by sailors on patrol. The system should eventually allow operators to quickly assess conditions around a vessel -- including the distance, speed and direction of other ships.
Today's ships rely on radar and human patrols. But regular radar, which maps nearby objects by beaming out electronic waves and analyzing the rebounds, is not particularly accurate.
Mitsui O.S.K. and Rolls-Royce expect the Sunflower testing to yield a variety of data, since the waters of the Seto Island Sea are among the world's busiest. Ships of various sizes ply those waters. And the Sunflower's 420km, 11-hour route takes it under major bridges and through narrow straits.
Both companies will study the data.
Mitsui O.S.K. hopes to one day fully automate shipping, from departure to arrival. To achieve this, it is also developing artificial intelligence-based technology to spot, using images, other ships and obstacles that pose a collision risk.