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Ships without sailors

Last month, Kongsberg Gruppen, a Norwegian maritime-technology firm, and fertilizer manufacturer Yara announced a partnership to build the world’s first fully autonomous and zero emissions electric cargo containership. Manned voyages will start in 2018, and in 2020 “Yara Birkeland” will set sail all on its own.

Trucks are essential to commerce. Almost every item purchased in stores is transported by truck at some point. Trucks add to urban congestion and clog highways, and the vast majority of them are powered by diesel engines that contributes to millions of tons of polluting emissions. Norway is experimenting with a new way to get some of those trucks off the road and reduce diesel emissions — autonomous electric ships.

The Norwegian Forum For Autonomous Ships was established in 2016 and is a partnership between Norwegian Maritime Authority, Norwegian Coastal Administration, the Federation of Norwegian Industries and MARINTEK (now SINTEF Ocean). Its mission is to facilitate the testing of fully or partly unmanned vessels and to exchange experience and data to facilitate the development and use of such vehicles.

Since these vessels would be autonomous, their design can be re-engineered substantially. Norway's shallow waters, multiple fjords, lakes, and rivers make smaller vessels ideal. Using either batteries or hydrogen fuel cells, the crew-free ships would weigh much less and provide greater energy efficiency and a lower wells-to-propellers carbon footprint per kilometer.

It is the beginning of a revolution that could transform one of the world’s oldest and most conservative industries — and make global shipping safer, faster and cleaner than it has ever been.

Watch the video of “Yara Birkeland” here:

Kongsberg Maritime autonomous boat concept. Illustration: Kongsberg Maritime.