An autonomous ship to be christened the Yara Birkeland is to set sail in 2018. The vessel is being jointly developed by two Norwegian companies, agricultural firm Yara International and Kongsberg Gruppen, which has interests in marine and military technologies. With a capacity of 150 containers Yara Birkeland is small in comparison to even average-sized container ships – which typically carry 3,500 containers – but nevertheless the venture is set to heavily disrupt the global shipping and autonomous vehicle industries.
Similarly to self-driving cars, the vessel will navigate using a mixture of LIDAR (light detection and ranging), radar and cameras, with a bridge crew still at the helm (at least at first). However, the ship will still be able to navigate itself through the sea, avoid other ships and dock itself without assistance. Eventually, the bridge crew will be moved ashore and the ship will be operated remotely on-land, potentially as early as 2020.
Kongsberg CEO Geir Haoy told the Wall Street Journal that the process was no different from flying a drone today: “It will be GPS navigation and lots of high-tech cameras to see what’s going on around the ship.”
Yara Birkeland’s first planned route will take it between three ports in southern Norway, hauling Yara International fertilizer from a manufacturing plant to the Brevik and Larvik ports. The entire route is only 37 nautical miles, and the vessel will not go any further than 12 nautical miles off the coast.
This is the first step in a much needed transformation. The United Nation’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO) estimates that 90% of the entire world’s trade is carried by sea, but as far back as 2009 The Guardian has reported that the shipping industry is a huge pollutor. Confidential data revealed that only the sea’s 15 largest ships can emit as much pollution as the-then entire world’s 760 million cars. Many of these harmful emissions come from the fuel used to power ships engines, named bunker fuel. Bunker fuel is reckoned to contain 2,000 times more sulphur than diesel fuel used in cars.
The Yara Birkeland will not only usher in the replacement of thirsty ships, but also thirsty trucks. When fully operational, the vessel will reduce the number of truck journeys by around 40,000 per year throughout southern Norway.
With all of these factors combined, the introduction of autonomous vessels is set to disrupt multiple industries. As more vessels are planned and constructed, and as the technology improves further, new legislation will likely be required to govern how the transportation and merchant sectors evolve.