In August this year came the announcement that a group of Japanese organisations had joined forces to come up with a new auto-berthing shipping technology.

The consortium, which includes shipping giant Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL), alongside Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology (TUMST), aims to bring autonomous berthing and un-berthing tech to the Japanese market by 2025.

The project is ambitious in its scope, but comes as little surprise. Tokyo – which is funding the initiative – has made no secret of its intention to reduce manual operations within its shipping sector in favour of greater automation.

A demonstration test has already been pencilled in for later this year, to be conducted on TUMST’s Shioji Maru training ship. After that, project partners will look to test auto-berthing using a large ship already operating as part of a domestic ferry service. Remote monitoring and auto-collision technologies will also be trialled in the meantime.

The ultimate goal of the project, says MOL, is to reduce human errors, attributable to “80% of marine accidents”. Auto-berthing technology, the group believes, could “significantly reduce” such mistakes.

Tricky business: the risks of mooring operations

According to Nadeem Anwar, a senior lecturer at Southampton Solent University’s School of Maritime Science & Engineering, berthing and un-berthing have long been some of the trickiest undertakings in shipping.

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“The mooring operations can be risky and often result in accidents to both ship and shore crew, which may at times be fatal,” he explains.

“The mooring operations can be risky and often result in accidents to both ship and shore crew.”

“There is the possibility of damage to equipment and mooring lines and systems, while any errors in vessels’ approach towards the berth or severe environmental conditions may cause the vessel to land heavily on the berth, resulting in damage to both the vessel, fender systems and the berth structure, as well as likely pollution damage.”

What’s more, successful berthing is also contingent on external factors, such as tidal levels and wind force.

“There is risk to vessels’ moorings when changes happen in tidal levels and flow, wind force becomes excessive, and sea state becomes heavy,” says Anwar. “At times, passing vessels may cause the vessel on the berth to range on her moorings. In all such cases, the mooring lines can part, putting the crew, vessel and the environment at further risk.”

Auto-berthing systems already on the market

Technology companies have been looking to develop systems to counter and reduce these risks for some time, says Anwar. These systems are geared towards providing a greater level of control upon a ship’s approach towards its berth, reducing the risk of mooring lines parting when they come under load.

 “There’s also the doppler approach system, which allows the master or pilot to monitor the rate of approach effectively and control the berthing operation without landing heavily on the berth,” he says.

“The systems clearly bring a step change in safety.”

“Another approach taken has been use of clamps, which hold on to specific mooring points created in the hull of this ship and keep her alongside. This system has the limitation that it can only connect vessels that are fitted with hull mooring points specifically designed for this system.”

Some of these berthing technologies have already made it to market. Offshore and marine engineering firm MacGregor has an auto-tension mooring system in its portfolio, which uses shore-based lines and a pendant connected to the ship to control against loads and movement.

The most modern developments in this area to date, however, have been vacuum-based, rope-free mooring systems. Anwar cites the MoorMaster and AutoMoor systems, by Cavotec and Trelleborg respectively, which both work on the basis of attaching a number of vacuum pads to ship’s hull, which pull the ship to its berth.

“The systems do not require mooring assistance from the ship’s crew, though some crew presence may still be required for deployment of anchors where necessary,” he says.

“It has the ability to attach to the hull when it is 2.5m off the berth. This reduces the possibility of impact damage – as well as the need to run engines for long to position the ships – and eliminates manual handling of lines, while reducing wear and tear of the ship’s hull and port fender systems.

“These systems clearly bring a step change in safety, as no manual handling of mooring is taking place, hence large number of mooring related accidents can be avoided.”

The snags associated with current technologies

There are some drawbacks to these technologies, however. These systems are reliant on a constant source of power availability ashore, and while most are provided with uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), there is often no back-up in the event of a power failure (in which the UPS fails to activate). This could create the risk of the ship being inadvertently released from its vacuum moorings.

“Auto-berthing technology is a major development, but one that needs to be treated with respect.”

“Furthermore, the systems are remotely monitored using an internet-based system, and potential cyber security issues do pose challenges,” adds Anwar. “There is also a likelihood that hulls that do not have a smooth finish due to wear and tear, corrosion, indentation or marine growth, which creates a challenge for a safe, continuous vacuum connection.”

All in all, new auto-berthing technology, Anwar summarises, should be seen as “a major development, but one that needs to be treated with respect”. It will be interesting to see whether it can cross new frontiers in Japan in the coming months and years.