According to The Nikkei Asian Review, a group of 40 Japanese shipping companies, shipbuilders and technology companies aims to have remote-control vessels ply Japanese waters as early as 2025, a potential life preserver for a graying industry suffering from a chronic labor shortage.
The project under the auspices of the nonprofit Nippon Foundation will use satellites and high-speed fifth-generation wireless networks for communication between land and sea, and artificial intelligence to help set efficient routes. Participants include Nippon Yusen and Nippon Telegraph & Telephone.
If domestic ships can be steered from land-based centers hundreds of kilometers away, crew members could simply commute to a nearby control station instead of needing to spend months at sea. Even graduates of maritime training schools now shy away from these harsh conditions. The Nippon Foundation aims to have unmanned vessels account for 50% of domestic shipping by 2040.
The broad consortium can handle technical challenges, including the need for cameras and sensors that monitor conditions in place of a human crew, that transportation companies and shipbuilders could not tackle on their own.
"We don't intend to monopolize the technology we've developed," said Satoru Kuwahara of Japan Marine Science, a Nippon Yusen group company involved in the project. "We want to work with good partners to create a market for it."
The remote-control technology will undergo a trial run late next year with a mid-size domestic container ship, which will also be equipped with a system enabling it to automatically steer away from potential collisions with other vessels. The plan is to include all the necessary equipment and systems in a container that can be installed on existing ships, removing the need for an expensive refit.
The communications will be handled on NTT mobile networks, likely on LTE, with satellites from broadcaster Sky Perfect JSAT serving as a backup if the connection is severed. Maritime telecommunications are said to be a decade out of date from the mainstream, with transmissions from land to ships less than 100 km away traveling at the equivalent of 2G speeds.
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