Fully Autonomous Cargo Ships Face Enormous Challenges


A consortium of Norwegian firms, including Yara International, Vard, and Kongsberg, announced on September 2017, that they’d start testing the hull design of the YARA Birkenland at a test-tank facility in Trondheim.

When it’s completely built, it would be the small ship with 3,200 Dead Weight Tonnage (DWT), and the first to operate fully autonomous to enter commercial service.

Hull under test

Later this year, according to the timeline set by the developers and the regulators (led by the Norwegian Coastal Administration), the unfinished hull of the YARA Birkenland will be towed from the Vard shipyard in Braila (Romania) to the Vard facilities in Brevik (Norway) to be completed.

Other tests planned

The shakedown cruise and first testing of autonomous capabilities are scheduled to start in 2019. In 2020, the ship will be delivered as a manned cargo, with more capabilities gradually being transferred to the shipboard systems until it reaches fully autonomous capacity in 2022.

The ship will feature a superstructure to house the crew which will be removed when regulators clear it for a complete autonomous operation, further adding to “the future as seen from the past” look of the ship.

So far, the project has been subsidized to the tune of NOK133 million ($15.7 million) but more funding will be made available in the future.

No fossil fuel

The ship will be fully electric and will feature many advanced solutions, such as fully automated loading and unloading equipment, a permanent ballast (consisting of the batteries), and automated mooring systems.

The all-electric propulsion system was chosen following negotiations with the Norwegian government. The first design choice was to use liquefied natural gas (LNG) as fuel (either in a gas turbine or two-stroke diesel engine), but regulators thought this was going too far. More importantly, the use of an electric propulsion system allowed Yara to access funding from the Norwegian government which will go towards covering part of the development costs.

Where will it operate?

In short, if everything goes according to plan, this ship will be able to carry cargo between three Yara facilities along Southern Norway without human intervention.

While most of these features have been trialed before, this is the first time they are not just integrated in a single ship but put into revenue-generating service and hence expected to perform reliably in a real-world environment.

Not replace, but assist

Some of the technology Kongsberg is developing for the YARA Birkenland will be employed to assist, not replace, ferry crews on the Horten-Moss route starting in September 2018.

Ferries are vital along Norway’s rugged coastline and innumerable isles, not merely to transport vehicles but also all kinds of goods, from foodstuff to construction equipment.

What it features?

Kongsberg is purposely opaque on the exact nature of this technology, but it’s safe to assume this technology will make use of GPS/GLONASS data and LIDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) to help mooring operations; and data from onboard sensors will contribute to autonomously regulate engines and improve fuel economy.

Robert Allan Ltd, a Canadian ship engineering firm specialized in harbor service vessels, is presently working on a “technology demonstrator” to test solutions which could be used on a future crewless fireboat.

LNG, doubles risk

Firefighting is dangerous business even with the best training and equipment. With LNG becoming more common aboard ships, both as a cargo and as a fuel, there will be a whole new set of challenges to the brave and hardy people manning fireboats and firefighting tugboats, or Fifi, as they are collectively and affectionately nicknamed in the business.

Not in the near future

Even if the YARA Birkenland project proceeds smoothly and according to schedule, the ship will be limited to a 12-nautical-mile coastal route while being remotely monitored by two or three control centers (the exact number is still to be decided).

Any accident will negatively impact the whole venture; public opinion appears to be very sensitive about autonomous vehicles even as the hundreds of accidents involving ships with a human crew worldwide each year seem to fly below the radar.

Not yet ready

Specialized semi-autonomous vessels, such as remotely controlled fireboats, may enter limited service in a relatively shorter time, but one always needs to remember what ultimately drives automation: money. As long as humans can do a given job for less money than a machine, automation remains in the realm of science fiction.

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Source: Wolf Street


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