Published by Norway-Asia Business Review

A joystick and 20 computer screens; within a few years this could be the face of shipping. No more spending months on a vessel or truck, but checking multiple vessels at the same time from ashore.

This might sound like a far-fetched future, but it might be closer than you think. The first vessel of its kind has already been developed in Norway. To be honest, this is as of now just a miniature version, but the model leads the way for construction of the first autonomous vessel in the world.

Yara Birkeland is the name of the ship and it’s not just autonomous; it also has zero emission made possible through its electric drive, battery and propulsion control systems. On 28 September 2017, the final design of Yara Birkeland was revealed and tested at SINTEF Ocean and now the building period starts. The vessel will be delivered and begin first tests in 2019. By 2020 the first fully autonomous operations are scheduled to be conducted in Norway, its route leading from Herøya to Larvik via Brevik.

“To succeed with a project like this we rely on collaboration with leading maritime competence hubs and technology companies, like Kongsberg on autonomous technology, Marin Teknikk on ship design and SINTEF for testing of the model. It was a special moment when we were joined by our partners in Trondheim today to witness the design and demonstration of a miniature Yara Birkeland for the first time,” says President and CEO of Yara, Mr Svein Tore Holsether on the website of Kongsberg.

Once finished the vessel will enable a reduction of 40,000 round trips a year from Yara’s Porsgrunn fertiliser plant in southern Norway to the ports of Brevik and Larvik, reducing local NOx and CO2 emissions produced by trucks according to Kongsberg. “Green shipping is an area where Norway can make a global difference for climate and the environment, and where the Norwegian maritime cluster can take new international positions,” says Mr Geir Håøy, President and CEO of Kongsberg.

“Loading and discharging will be done automatically using electric cranes and equipment. The ship will also be equipped with an automatic mooring system – berthing and unberthing will be done without human intervention, and will not require special implementations dock-side,” states Kongsberg on its website.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the executives state that the vessel will cost USD 25 million, about three times as much as a conventional container ship of its size, but its operational costs are expected to drop 90% with no fuel or crew. This applies to smaller ships though and shorter routes.

For now, Mr Lars Jensen, chief executive of SeaIntelligence Consulting expects autonomous vessels to be mainly of interest for short trips close to shore. “It’s not a matter of technology, which is already there, but a business case. Autonomous ships are expensive to begin with, and have to be built very robust, because if they break down, the cost of getting a team to fix them it in the middle of the ocean will be very high,” states Mr Jensen to the Wall Street Journal.

Yara and Kongsberg are not the only ones developing autonomous vessels. Rolls-Royce is developing a navel ship powered by solar energy and in 2016 the US military revealed a warship that can operate on its own for months at a time.

In another area closely related to shipping, several other actors are developing autonomous vehicles also. Uber, Tesla and Google all have a stake in making successful autonomous trucks or cars.

Google is well-known for its self-driving cars through sister company Waymo and now is also looking at trucks Wired reported. Uber was making autonomous trucks, but they just pivoted to trucks with autopilot to lessen the burden for drivers according to TechCrunch. Autopilot means the trucks don’t require autonomous licencing from the American Department of Motor Vehicles.

Tesla, on the other hand, is just venturing into autonomous vehicles with reports by Reuters about requesting a testing licence for from the state of Nevada for a “long-haul, electric semi-truck that can drive itself and move in “platoons” that automatically follow a lead vehicle.”

One of the reasons all these tech companies are looking into transportation, are the problems the industry faces. The industry has suffered for a long time from the difficulty of finding enough drivers for the solitary job. At the same time e-commerce has increased the demand for deliveries.

On top of that, the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States stems from the transportation sector. To sum it up; the sector is right for disruption.

So on land and on the sea, there is a race going on to produce the first autonomous truck and vessel ready for deployment. But both sectors also face some issues at this time. First of all, there is the perceived sense of safety by the general public. The idea of a massive vehicle driving or sailing without humans on board can be a scary thought.

Also, questions about the safety of autonomous vehicles remain. ENOVA contributed NOK 133.6 million to Yara Birkeland. ENOVA is a Norwegian government enterprise promoting environmentally friendly production and energy consumption. “The interest in autonomous transport is great, but at the same time, many are skeptical [sic] and question the safety. The key contribution from this project is to demonstrate that autonomous and electric sea transport is feasible, and will deliver the results we want, “states Mr Nils Kristian Nakstad, CEO of ENOVA on the website of Yara.

Another issue facing autonomous vehicles is the regulatory gap. Autonomous shipping currently being limited to short distances comes partly because of the need for clear regulations. The International Maritime Organization doesn’t expect legislation governing crewless ships to be in place before 2020 the Wall Street Journal reports.

“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,” says Mr Haoy.


Kongsberg is also developing an autonomous offshore service vessel and recently announced a new project developing zero emission, full-electric, autonomous ferry concepts with PILOT-E, a collaboration between the Norwegian Research Council, Innovasjon Norge and ENOVA.

With autonomous driving fever spreading from privately owned companies to public services and both spanning the land and sea, the question remains if legislation will be sorted in time for companies to reap the benefits of autonomous vehicles before the high developmental cost jeopardizes the survival of the company. The company getting the equation right between legislation on the one hand and technology on the other, will win the race in the end.

  • Yara was founded in 1905 has almost 15,000 employees and sales to about 160 countries;
  • Yara Birkeland is estimated to reduce 40,000 round trips a year from Yara’s Porsgrunn fertiliser plant in southern Norway to the ports of Brevik and Larvik;
  • The model of Yara Birkeland is six-meter-long and weighs 2.4 ton;
  • The vessel is designed to be 79.5m long with a cargo capacity of 120 Twenty-foot Equivalent Units and maximum speed of 13 knots;
  • ENOVA contributed NOK 133.6 million to Yara Birkeland;
  • More information about the autonomous vessel can be found on the website of Yara or Kongsberg.


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