Autonomous "Ghost" Cargo Ship Sets Off On Maiden Voyage

The ship, named Yara Birkeland, is an 80 meter (262 foot) long vessel with a deadweight of around 3,200 tons. Image credit Knut Brevik Andersen, Wilhelmsen Ship Service. Copyright © 2004 - 2021 Yara International ASA All rights reserved

All aboard the crewless "ghost ship" of Norway. The world's first fully-electric autonomous cargo ship departed for its maiden voyage in Norway recently, offering a glimpse at what’s set to be the greener, cleaner, and humanless future of sea travel. 

The ship, named Yara Birkeland, is an 80 meter (262 foot) long vessel with a deadweight of around 3,200 tons. A system of sensors and computers allows the ship to be commanded autonomously or via remote control, removing the need for an onboard crew. On top of this, the vessel is powered by electrical propulsion and battery meaning it pumps out zero missions.

Its first voyage on Thursday, November 18 was only a demo trip from Horten to Oslo, attended by the Norwegian Prime Minister and the Minister of Fisheries and Ocean Policy. However, the company aims to have the ship in commercial operation from the next few years, transporting mineral fertilizer from Yara's Norweigian factory in Porsgrunn to the port in Brevik. This is only a short journey, just over 20 minutes by truck, but the company believes it will substantially slash their pollution output. 

“It will cut 1,000 tonnes of CO2 and replace 40,000 trips by diesel-powered trucks a year,” added Holsether.,” Svein Tore Holsether, CEO of Yara, said at the launch.

“This is an excellent example of green transition in practice, and we hope this ship will be the start of a new type of emission-free container ships. There are a lot of places in the world with congested roads that will benefit from a high-tech solution like this,” he continued. 

Elsewhere in the world, autonomous ships are also being tested for military purposes. Earlier this year, the US military commanded an uncrewed vessel, named NOMAD, on an 8,187 kilometer (4,421 nautical mile) journey from the Gulf Coast, passing through the Panama Canal, to the Pacific Coast. 

Autonomous ships hold both advantages and disadvantages over conventional vessels. Firstly, most maritime accidents are caused by “human error,” so computer systems could prove to be significantly safer captains compared to a human. The absence of a crew means the ships have more space for cargo, can be built lighter, and use less fuel. 

On the flip side, emerging technology brings new challenges, ranging from the threat of cyberattacks to reliability issues. Also, autonomous ships are currently only capable of coastal and river routes, not long ocean crossings, Camille Egloff, a maritime transport expert at Boston Consulting Group, told AFP while speaking on the topic of the maiden voyage of Yara Birkeland.

Given that this technology is so new, there’s also very limited regulation – something that will certainly have to be sorted out relatively soon. Regardless of these initial hiccups, however, it certainly seems like crewless ships will play a big role in the future of maritime transport.

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