Panama Approves Autonomous Navigation for Korean LNG Bunker Vessel

SM Korea LNG carrier
SM Group's LNG bunker vessel will proceed with flag state approval for the next autonomous navigation demonstration (SM Group)

Published Aug 28, 2023 2:10 PM by The Maritime Executive

Korea Shipping, an affiliate of SM Group's shipping division, received approval from Panama as its flag state to proceed with autonomous navigation on one of the company’s bunker vessels. The demonstration project is the next step in efforts with Samsung Heavy Industries to proceed with the commercial development of autonomous navigation technology. This latest approval comes just two months after Samsung Heavy Industries reported a successful test of its technology aboard a containership.

The flag state approval from Panama is the first for a joint research project launched just over a year ago involving SM Group's ship management company KLCSM, Samsung Heavy Industries, and Korea Register of Shipping. The focus is on developing an autonomous navigation system for medium-to-large ships, with the companies reporting that they have significantly upgraded the performance of the autonomous navigation system based on operational data collected during actual sailing. They reported successfully having passed safety verification through preliminary collision avoidance simulation.

The LNG bunker vessel SM Jeju LNG No. 2 (5,751 dwt) will proceed with the next stage of the demonstration now that the vessel, which was built in 2020 and registered in Panama, has received flag state approval. The vessel, which is 318 feet long and can deliver up to 7,650 cbm of LNG, operates from the port of Anjeong, South Korea.

The group has been conducting tests of autonomous navigation while operating the bunker vessel on a route between Tongyeong and Jeju. With this first-of-its-kind approval, they plan to proceed with the tests gathering additional information on the operation of the vessel. The companies report the information will be used to develop standards for autonomous navigation addressing issues including safety procedures and the role of the crew during autonomous navigation. 

Kim Hyeon-jo, head of Samsung Heavy Industries’ autonomous navigation research center, called the approval and the ongoing demonstrations the first step to open “a new era of autonomous coastal navigation of large cargo ships.”

The Korean shipbuilding industry is investing in new technologies including autonomous ship operations and navigation. Two months ago, Samsung Heavy Industries reported it had conducted a successful voyage from Geoje, South Korea to Kaohsiung, Taiwan with a 15,000 TEU containership using its autonomous navigation technology. The trip was over 900 miles during which the system identified over 9,000 obstacles. They reported that the technology accurately presented safe avoidance routes when approaching obstacles head-on or crossing from the side of the ship. More than 90 percent of the time, the route selected by the technology matched with ones determined by the navigator of the ship.

Samsung Heavy Industries reports the technology used in the demonstrations incorporates a range of systems. During operations, the system analyzes data from AIS signals, radar, cameras, and sensors. The company had conducted a prior test to Jeju Island Dokdo last year noting that the area in the South China Sea is highly congested with many ships operating along the route including small fishing boats near the islands. Samsung is looking to be a leader in smart ship technology and believes it will be a strong advantage in the future for its shipbuilding operation.