Crewless container ships appear on the horizon

The Yara Birkeland sails quietly through the Frier Fjord in southern Norway, looking like an ordinary small ship. By the end of this year, however, the number of crew on board will be reduced from five to two and, if all goes well, in two years‘ time the ship’s bridge will be removed and there will be no crew on board at all. Until then, captain Svend Ødegård will be at the helm of the 80-metre vessel. Eventually, the Yara Birkeland will navigate using sensors, including a radar and cameras, which transmit data to an artificial intelligence, which detects and classifies obstacles on the water. „We have situational awareness – cameras on the side, front and back of the ship,“ explains the captain. „It can decide if it needs to change its path because something is in the way.“ The captain’s job is shifted to shore, to an operations centre more than 80 km away, where several ships can be monitored simultaneously. If necessary, people can intervene by sending commands to change speed and course.

The Yara Birkeland, owned by fertiliser giant Yara, has been sailing from the company’s huge plant near Porsgrunn to the port of Brevik twice a week for several months, carrying up to 100 containers and collecting data along its 13-km route. „Ships sailing along short, regular and fixed routes offer good opportunities to introduce autonomous ship technologies,“ said Sinikka Hartonen, secretary-general of One Sea Association, an alliance of maritime companies and experts in autonomy. The project’s technology supplier, Kongsberg, is working with Norwegian grocery wholesaler Asko on two more battery-powered autonomous ships in the Oslo Fjord and a fourth, small container ship, near Ålesund. „Some of the technology has been around for many years. So it’s really merging,“ says An-Magritt Ryste, director for next generation shipping at Kongsberg Maritime. According to Ryste, there is also interest in using autonomous navigation in fishing, passenger ferries and military vessels.

Autonomous navigation technology can be applied to all kinds of shipping, says An-Magritt Ryste. Kongsberg already makes autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which mainly perform seabed mapping tasks for customers in offshore energy, ocean research and defence. The company recently delivered an 8-metre unmanned surface vessel (USV) that tracks fish stocks, using acoustic sonars and navigation by AI, cameras, radar and GPS. „They are also supervised by humans, who can intervene. But they are completely autonomous,“ says Bjørn Jalving, Kongsberg’s Senior Vice President of Technology. Kongsberg has scaled up the technology for larger ships. „Ultimately, I think the limitations will not be technical, but a matter of making them safe and reliable in line with regulations and good business for operators,“ Jalving says. Of course, one of the big advantages for shipping companies is the cost savings of not having crew on board. One team can potentially monitor several ships, says Jalving. Moreover, it is safer for a crew to be on land than at sea.