YARA Birkeland

The Tesla of the Seas

You’ve head of sailing a ship with a “skeleton crew,” but what about no crew at all?

The ghost ships from tall tales of pirates and buried treasure are no longer the stuff of fiction: A Norwegian company is developing a fully autonomous container ship that will eventually troll the high seas with no crew aboard.

The ship comes with a steep price tag of $25 million – about three times as much as a typical container ship – but promises to offer major benefits in safety, efficiency and cost savings. Dubbed the “Tesla of the Seas” by shipping executives, the YARA Birkeland is scheduled to be in the water next year for initial testing (with humans aboard first), then begin transporting fertilizer from a production facility to the Port of Larvik starting in late 2018.

Investors in the project estimate the Birkeland could save a staggering 90 percent in operating costs. Without a crew to house, feed, and provide with air conditioning, heating and sewage services, the ship can be streamlined to increase fuel efficiency and cargo capacity.

Experts say autonomous ships could also eliminate maritime accidents. According to a 2012 report from Munich-based insurance company Allianz, “between 75 and 96 percent of marine accidents are a result of human error, often a result of fatigue.”

Even piracy could be prevented through ship design that makes it difficult for anyone to board while the ship is at sea or use any of the onboard controls. In the event of unauthorized boarding, the ship could be immobilized immediately by on-land controllers who stall the vessel or force it to sail in circles until law enforcement arrives.

The Birkeland is also being touted as a greener alternative by its developers, agriculture firm YARA International ASA and Kongsberg Gruppen AS A. “We want to go zero emission,” said Petter Ostbo, YARA’s head of production who leads the project. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the ship is expected to replace 40,000 truck drives a year through urban areas in southern Norway.” And shipping companies are increasingly being pressured to lower emissions, especially when sailing near heavily populated areas in the U.S. and Europe.

Along with these benefits, autonomous ships will introduce new types of security concerns. Land-based controllers will operate vessels remotely, similar to drones, and that real-time satellite connection could hypothetically be vulnerable to cyber attack. A hacker who is able to take control of such a ship could redirect its route, take control of its cargo, or even use the ship itself to cause series damage by crashing into other vessels or structures.

To address these issues, the International Maritime Organization, which regulates maritime travel, expects to establish guidelines governing crewless ships that will be in place by 2020 – just about the time the team behind the YARA Birkeland expects to see the ship operating fully autonomously.

In a few short years, your could be waving from your cruise ship balcony and no one from the decks of the sleek 100-container ship would wave back.

Photo courtesy YARA.

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