The World’s First Autonomous Electric Cargo Ship Is Due to Set Sail

The World’s First Autonomous Electric Cargo Ship Is Due to Set Sail

Maritime shipping is big business, with gigantic container ships responsible for moving the vast majority of the world’s goods from point A to points B, C and D. Of course, there’s a significant environmental impact from all this activity, something ill befitting the cleaner, cooler world we hope the future will be. Thus, alternatives to the fossil fuel burning ships of old must be found. To that end, Norwegian company Yara International has developed a zero-emission ship by the name of Yara Birkeland, which aims to show the way forward into a world of electric, autonomous sea transport. 

Electric Power On The Water

The Yara Birkeland on trial, pictured here with a temporary bridge for manual control of the ship. Credit: Yara International

Yara International was originally founded to solve issues of famine in Europe in the early 20th century. This was achieved primarily through the development of the world’s first nitrogen fertilizers, which drastically increased crop yields. In more recent times, the company has come to focus on a broader range of sustainability issues, thus leading to the development of the Yara Birkeland.

The ship relies on electric power, packing a 7 MWh battery. As a comparison, the average electric car has a battery pack somewhere between 40 and 100 kWh. In fact, the Yara Birkeland’s battery pack is approximately the equivalent of 70 Tesla Model S battery packs in capacity. It’s intended for the ship to charge its battery packs when in port via quayside facilities.

Three separate facilities will monitor the progress of the ship. Credit: Kongsberg

The battery is paired with two 700 kW tunnel thrusters for propulsion. There’s also a further two 900 kW Azipull pod thrusters, which propel the ship in addition to adding maneuverability. All that power gives the Yara Birkeland a top speed of 13 knots, or around 15 MPH. Cargo capacity is 120 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs in the common shipping parlance. Alternatively, it can carry 60 forty-foot containers.

The ship is being built in partnership with Kongsberg, a marine systems provider based in Norway. The company stretches back over 200 years, originally starting out as a munitions factory in 1814. The company diversified over the years, building a heavy presence in the maritime industry up to the present day. Kongsberg is responsible for the autonomous side of the project, including the sensors and integration work involved, as well as the electric drivetrain and propulsion systems.

Before the year is out, the ship will travel from Herøya to Brevik under its own autonomous control, while being monitored from a series of land-based control centres. At this early stage, the ship will be loaded and unloaded manually by humans, as per any other container ship. However, the aim is to automate these processes as well down the track, lowering the costs of transporting goods by removing humans from the loop. Notably, though, berthing and unberthing will be handled automatically without the need for human intervention or special equipment on the docks.

A Cleaner Option

The shipping industry accounts for a significant chunk of global greenhouse gas emissions, on the order of 2.5-3% according to recent studies. Although it only makes up a roughly 10% of the total scope of emissions from transport as a whole, once road travel, aviation, rail and other sources are taken into account. Regardless, greenhouse gas levels and global temperatures have continued to rise to the point where savings need to be found in all areas, shipping included.

Unfortunately, the pace of change has been slow. Emissions from shipping have continued to rise, increasingly by approximately 10 percent from 2012 to 2018. In the face of this, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is aiming for a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030, relative to 2008 levels. By 2050, the hope is they’ll be down to 70%. A steep goal given the negative progress made thus far.

The ship under tow from a tug, pictured here configured for autonomous operation.

The IMO has already mandated a series of efficiency requirements in an attempt to reign in the industry. Their international guidelines state that ships built in 2022 will need to be 30% more energy efficient than those constructed in 2014. These guidelines were originally due to come into effect for 2025, but were brought forwards at the 74th meeting session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee.

These energy efficiency regulations will lead to a raft of changes to international shipping operations. The IMO aims to see incremental improvements via simple measures like better voyage planning and more regular cleaning of propellers and the undersides of ships. More in-depth technological measures will involve efficiency modifications to ships, such as implementing waste heat recovery devices or fitting more efficient propellers to help ships save fuel and thus reduce emissions.

The Way Forward

Obviously, zero-emissions ships that emit no greenhouse gases themselves would be a huge win towards achieving these goals. Even if the ships run on electricity generated by fossil fuels, shifting the pollution from many ships to fewer municipal power plants is still a huge win in terms of efficiency and thus lower emissions. In that regard, it’s much the same benefit as gained from switching to electric cars.

However, similar issues that have slowed down the uptake of electric vehicles would similarly effect electric shipping. Infrastructure does not yet exist at ports to support electric ships, and huge amounts of raw materials would be required to produce the necessary batteries to support electric shipping fleets. Neither of these issues is insurmountable, but these problems take time to solve, often on the order of decades.

The project from Yara International then serves as a great first step towards what could become a broader trend in the shipping industry. Obviously, a small electric craft carrying 120 containers is not the solution when full-size container ships boast capacities over 14,000 TEUs in comparison. However, it’s the first step down a long road towards transforming global shipping for the better. The project’s success or failure will teach us much about what is to come.

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