Autonomous Ships to Ignite Ocean Innovation

27 December 2022

Japanese version: 1 August 2022

Masanori Muto
Frontier Technology Division


  • Successful demonstration of fully autonomous ship through the busy Tokyo Bay shows that technology is ready
  • Japan needs to spark blue-economy innovation utilizing autonomous ships 
  • Practical implementation will require new rules and the operation of multiple vessels

Successful demonstration of fully autonomous ship through the busy Tokyo Bay

In March 2022 a fully autonomous container carrier passed through Tokyo Bay as part of a groundbreaking trial to demonstrate the viability of autonomous ships.* The success is significant because it has proven that the autonomous navigation system developed for the test is safe and reliable even in the congested Tokyo Bay. This marks a milestone on the way to having autonomous ships plying the busy waters of and around Japan.

Great progress in autonomous navigation technology underpinned the trial’s success. Autonomous navigation requires the automation and enhanced precision of collision-avoidance systems along with a practical way for ensuring safety in emergencies at sea. These issues have remained unsolved for years.

The trial showed that all this could be done. The vessel, equipped with an autonomous navigation system, was monitored remotely from its Fleet Operation Center installed in Chiba, a city near Tokyo, using land-based and satellite communications. The ship could also be remotely piloted from the center in the event of an emergency out on the water.

*The demonstration was conducted as a part of MEGURI2040, a Japan Foundation program to develop technology enabling autonomous shipping. Mitsubishi Research Institute participated as a member of the technology demonstration consortium
5th Demonstration Test of Fully Autonomous Ship Navigation Successfully Completed

[Figure1] Overview of the DFFAS comprehensive fully autonomous navigation system
Overview of the DFFAS comprehensive fully autonomous navigation system
Source: DFFAS Consortium

Potential in construction and installation of offshore wind farms

A shift to uncrewed autonomous ships would help address a number of challenges our society faces, among them securing a sufficient seafaring workforce, decreasing their burdensome workloads, maintaining transportation systems for remote islands, and preventing maritime accidents currently caused by human error. It would also give a boost to all sorts of maritime activities—ranging from offshore energy resources to fishing and patrolling—in the vast waters around Japan, whose exclusive economic zone is the world’s sixth largest. We are particularly interested in the potential of using autonomous ships for constructing and maintaining offshore wind farms. Given expected growth in the number of wind-farm designated areas and upcoming development projects, there would be great demands for transporting workers involved in their construction and maintenance. In that sense, autonomous shipping could be an indispensable element for implementing Japan’s future sustainable energy policy.

Furthermore, developing autonomous shipping technology could also be another driver of innovation originating in Japan. For example, it provides opportunities for advancements in automatic recognition of obstacles using artificial intelligence and utilization of next-generation communications systems using low-orbit satellites.

Most importantly, land-based operation of ships will provide crew members with a new way to work—remotely, without getting onboard. This will allow them to choose from a range of flexible workstyles including daytime shifts, which could alleviate the burden faced by senior members of the workforce and those in the midst of raising children.

The key to a blue economy

Fully autonomous ships will also help move forward the blue economy, the sustainable economic utilization of ocean resources. Seafloor resource and energy extraction, fisheries, and shipping would all benefit from this technology. Maximizing the utilization of the oceans’ abundance in this way will present the world with a new model for achieving sustainability.
[Figure2] Concept of blue economy innovation by autonomous shipping
Concept of blue economy innovation by autonomous shipping
Source: Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc.
The remaining challenges are, however, numerous, and many require solutions tailored for specific user needs. For example, the support vessels used in constructing and maintaining offshore wind farms will have to be able to autodock with floating wind turbine installations if they are to be made fully autonomous.

Meanwhile, achieving merits of scale will be essential for business viability. One way to do that will be servicing multiple ships concurrently from land-based support centers. Collaboration among industry members is essential to boost development efficiency and strengthen international competitiveness. Developing rules for addressing safety requirements is also necessary.

Japan can swiftly surmount these issues if its various actors are able to work in unison. We at Mitsubishi Research Institute, too, will play our part in undertaking the deployment of such solutions ourselves.