The First Fully Electric, Autonomous Commercial Cargo Ship Coming Next Year

A rendering of the Yara Birkeland. Credit: YARA
A rendering of the Yara Birkeland. Credit: YARA

Norway is set to make history next year by building and operating the first autonomous and fully electric commercial cargo ship.

The ship, the Yara Birkeland is projected to cost $25 million and is currently under joint development by the Norwegian agriculture firm Yara International ASA and Kongsberg Gruppen.

The Yara Birkeland is planned to start carrying fertilizer 37 nautical miles from a fertilizer production facility down to the port of Larvik. The ship will stay within 12 nautical miles of the coast.

The ship will use GPS, radar, AIS, Lidar, and IR cameras to avoid obstacles and traffic and dock without human intervention.

Without a human crew or fuel to pay for the ship is estimated to eventually cut operating costs by up to 90%.

Autonomous and 100% electric

Yara International ASA and Kongsberg Gruppen say the ship will slash emissions and improve road safety by eliminating the need for the current 40,000 truck trips currently made annually to transport fertilizer. The fully electric ship will be powered by a 4 MWh battery pack.

The first stage of the ship’s implementation and testing will begin next year where a single shipping container on the deck will be used as a bridge for a crew to monitor the ship. If the autonomous operations are successful then the bridge will be moved on shore to a remote-operation center in 2019. By 2020 it’s expected that the ship will be fully autonomous.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Petter Ostbo, who leads the project at Yara, said the company is evaluating the potential for scaling the technology to larger ships for international routes once the regulations crewless vessels. “Maybe even move our fertilizer from Holland all the way to Brazil,” he said.

Kongsberg’s CEO, Geir Haoy said “Once the regulation is in place, I can see this spreading fast, there is a lot of interest from operators of coastal tankers, fish-transport vessels and supply ships that are knocking on our door.”

The Norwegians will have competition soon with Rolls-Royce also working on developing autonomous ships with plans to launch theirs by 2020.


Remote operations center. Credit: Rolls-Royce PLC
Remote operations center. Credit: Rolls-Royce PLC

China’s government is also funding the development of autonomous ships.

In 2015 a study by the European Union concluded that intercontinental bulk cargo shippng is both feasible and likely to be adopted.

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