ARTICLE: Raconteur – Unmanned ships set to sail the seas

Ships that sail themselves will cost less to operate and use clean energy, but will see the loss of crew jobs

Unmanned ships piloted by people onshore or that sail and navigate the seas completely autonomously is a concept first floated in the 1970s, but one which is now close to becoming a reality.

An uptake in development and interest in the technology this year shows there is a real business case and demand for autonomous shipping.

In May, Kongsberg and global fertiliser firm Yara announced the development of the world’s first fully electric and fully autonomous container ship, the Yara Birkeland, which will transport products from Yara’s Norwegian Porsgrunn production plant to Brevik and Larvik, also in Norway. The vessel’s launch is planned for early-2019.

This June, Rolls-Royce and global towage operator Svitzer successfully demonstrated the world’s first remotely operated commercial vessel in Copenhagen harbour.

Furthermore, BHP Billiton, the world’s biggest mining company and shipper of one quarter of a billion tonnes of iron ore, coal and copper, this year said it intends to develop autonomous vessels to carry future cargo.

Unmanned shipping, like other automated technologies, offers several benefits to commercial operators, such as improved safety, cost reductions, more space for cargo and an overall more efficient marine supply chain, which could drive down costs for business heavily reliant on shipping.

Yara-Birkeland
Illustration of the Yara Birkeland, by Kongsberg and Yara, expected to be delivered from the ship yard in early-2019

“Remote-controlled and autonomous ships don’t get tired, they will reduce the risk of injury and even death, as well as the potential loss or damage of valuable assets,” says Oskar Levander, senior vice president, concepts and innovation, at Rolls-Royce.

The Yara Birkeland, for example, will be powered with electric battery propulsion that will reduce nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide emissions, and improve road safety by ending the need for up to 40,000 truck journeys in populated urban areas.

The vessel will cost $25 million, about three times as much as a conventional ship of a similar size, but will save up to 90 per cent in annual operating costs by eliminating both fuel and crew, according to Yara.

However, the development of remotely controlled and autonomous shipping containers depends on the vessel’s ability to sense and understand what’s going on around it, and to communicate this, via satellite or other networks, to an onshore control room. It must also independently navigate, avoid collisions and perform complex maneuvers.

This article also appeared in The Times.

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