A Norwegian company has created what it calls the world’s first zero-emission, completely autonomous cargo ship.
The Yara Birkeland took its maiden, but supervised, voyage late last year, and will be running between two Norwegian towns before the end of the year with a reduced crew on board to monitor the autonomous systems.
In two years, if all goes to plan, the ship will be totally uncrewed, and all movements will be monitored from three onshore data control centres.
The 80m-long ship weighs approximately 3,200 tonnes and uses a number of sensors, like infrared cameras and automotive integrated solutions cameras – fitted on the side, front and stern of the ship – and radar to feed data into an AI system that eliminate the need for a human crew. This system is utilised both at sea, when transporting, to detect obstacles in the water and change paths, and when docking, to deploy its automatic mooring arms.
Although loading and unloading of the ship will require humans, eventually these operations are also planned to become autonomous. That will involve integrating autonomous devices – cranes and straddle carriers – into the ports it makes berth in.
A captain will be one of the few remaining roles left when the ship is fully realised, but they’ll now be on dry land, supervising from a remote operation centre more than 50 miles away. This could allow several ships to be stewarded by one captain, with the skipper being able to intervene in any of those under his control by sending commands to alter the speed and course.
The ship, owned by fertiliser giant Yara, has been sailing with up to 100 containers onboard twice weekly for last several months from the firm’s plant near Porsgrunn to the port of Brevik to collect data along the 8-mile route.
The use of IoT in shipping is continuously expanding, aided by advancements in connectivity, sensor technology, and data analytics. One of the main draws for its increasing use in this field is greater safety and cost savings. Moving to autonomous ships could see costs saved by not having to pay to have as large a crew, lower insurance for not having to insure them for time at sea, and even greater safety as monitoring can now be done on land.
Additionally, autonomous ships face less hurdles than other autonomous vehicles, like cars. Slower moving, with more space, and less variables to deal with, like pedestrians, mean there are fewer, less stringent regulations and standards stopping the implementation of the technology on ships.
Yet the project required regulations to be developed together with the Norwegian maritime authorities to allow the autonomous ship to navigate the country’s waterways for the first time. Equally, differing maritime regulations for each country may mean that until a overarching regulatory framework is met, such autonomous ships may be limited to trips within the same country’s waters.
The Yara Bikeland is not the first autonomous ship. An autonomous ferry first launched in Finland in 2018; then, in 2022, we saw a car ferry self-navigate and dock using technology by Mitsubishi in Japan. Beyond ferries, a commercial ship completed a month-long voyage from Texas to South Korea, navigating autonomously for about half of the 20,000km route.