The World’s First Autonomous Electric Cargo Ship Is Due To Set Sail

Maritime shipping is big business, with gigantic container ships responsible for moving the vast majority of the world’s goods from point A to points B, C and D. Of course, there’s a significant environmental impact from all this activity, something ill befitting the cleaner, cooler world we hope the future will be. Thus, alternatives to the fossil fuel burning ships of old must be found. To that end, Norwegian company Yara International has developed a zero-emission ship by the name of Yara Birkeland, which aims to show the way forward into a world of electric, autonomous sea transport. 

Electric Power On The Water

The Yara Birkeland on trial, pictured here with a temporary bridge for manual control of the ship. Credit: Yara International

Yara International was originally founded to solve issues of famine in Europe in the early 20th century. This was achieved primarily through the development of the world’s first nitrogen fertilizers, which drastically increased crop yields. In more recent times, the company has come to focus on a broader range of sustainability issues, thus leading to the development of the Yara Birkeland.

The ship relies on electric power, packing a 7 MWh battery. As a comparison, the average electric car has a battery pack somewhere between 40 and 100 kWh. In fact, the Yara Birkeland’s battery pack is approximately the equivalent of 70 Tesla Model S battery packs in capacity. It’s intended for the ship to charge its battery packs when in port via quayside facilities.

Three separate facilities will monitor the progress of the ship. Credit: Kongsberg

The battery is paired with two 700 kW tunnel thrusters for propulsion. There’s also a further two 900 kW Azipull pod thrusters, which propel the ship in addition to adding maneuverability. All that power gives the Yara Birkeland a top speed of 13 knots, or around 15 MPH. Cargo capacity is 120 twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs in the common shipping parlance. Alternatively, it can carry 60 forty-foot containers.

The ship is being built in partnership with Kongsberg, a marine systems provider based in Norway. The company stretches back over 200 years, originally starting out as a munitions factory in 1814. The company diversified over the years, building a heavy presence in the maritime industry up to the present day. Kongsberg is responsible for the autonomous side of the project, including the sensors and integration work involved, as well as the electric drivetrain and propulsion systems.

Before the year is out, the ship will travel from Herøya to Brevik under its own autonomous control, while being monitored from a series of land-based control centres. At this early stage, the ship will be loaded and unloaded manually by humans, as per any other container ship. However, the aim is to automate these processes as well down the track, lowering the costs of transporting goods by removing humans from the loop. Notably, though, berthing and unberthing will be handled automatically without the need for human intervention or special equipment on the docks.

A Cleaner Option

The shipping industry accounts for a significant chunk of global greenhouse gas emissions, on the order of 2.5-3% according to recent studies. Although it only makes up roughly 10% of the total scope of emissions from transport as a whole, once road travel, aviation, rail and other sources are taken into account. Regardless, greenhouse gas levels and global temperatures have continued to rise to the point where savings need to be found in all areas, shipping included.

Unfortunately, the pace of change has been slow. Emissions from shipping have continued to rise, increasing by approximately 10 percent from 2012 to 2018. In the face of this, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is aiming for a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030, relative to 2008 levels. By 2050, the hope is they’ll be down by 70%. A steep goal given the negative progress made thus far.

The ship under tow from a tug, pictured here configured for autonomous operation.

The IMO has already mandated a series of efficiency requirements in an attempt to reign in the industry. Their international guidelines state that ships built in 2022 will need to be 30% more energy efficient than those constructed in 2014. These guidelines were originally due to come into effect for 2025, but were brought forwards at the 74th meeting session of the Marine Environment Protection Committee.

These energy efficiency regulations will lead to a raft of changes to international shipping operations. The IMO aims to see incremental improvements via simple measures like better voyage planning and more regular cleaning of propellers and the undersides of ships. More in-depth technological measures will involve efficiency modifications to ships, such as implementing waste heat recovery devices or fitting more efficient propellers to help ships save fuel and thus reduce emissions.

The Way Forward

Obviously, zero-emissions ships that emit no greenhouse gases themselves would be a huge win towards achieving these goals. Even if the ships run on electricity generated by fossil fuels, shifting the pollution from many ships to fewer municipal power plants is still a huge win in terms of efficiency and thus lower emissions. In that regard, it’s much the same benefit as gained from switching to electric cars.

However, similar issues that have slowed down the uptake of electric vehicles would similarly effect electric shipping. Infrastructure does not yet exist at ports to support electric ships, and huge amounts of raw materials would be required to produce the necessary batteries to support electric shipping fleets. Neither of these issues is insurmountable, but these problems take time to solve, often on the order of decades.

The project from Yara International then serves as a great first step towards what could become a broader trend in the shipping industry. Obviously, a small electric craft carrying 120 containers is not the solution when full-size container ships boast capacities over 14,000 TEUs in comparison. However, it’s the first step down a long road towards transforming global shipping for the better. The project’s success or failure will teach us much about what is to come.

55 thoughts on “The World’s First Autonomous Electric Cargo Ship Is Due To Set Sail

  1. Yay, a step in the right direction since ship routes are pretty standard from what I’ve seen. However, what’s to keep a hijacker from taking the ship? Hope the owner has a way to disable the ship so it’s not operable without correctly logging in.

    1. This ship makes a very short journey. So hijacking the ship would be… ambitious because it doesn’t have enough power to go far. It’s also radio linked and has lots of sensors, so they’ll know when something is amiss.

    2. I wondered about this until I realised it only takes 120 TEU. At that size, it’s basically a toy, probably only used for pootling round rivers and in sight of the Norwegian coast.

      But yes, scale it up, send it into the wide ocean, and the GWh or so battery alone becomes a very tempting target.

    3. I may be wrong about this but I think it’s the human staff that make big cargo ships vulnerable to piracy. Imagine a shipping container ship that has no control room, no doors, no ladders up the side. It’s just a vertical steel building churning along. If pirates managed to scale it, what would they do, pop open individual shipping containers and rifle through them hoping to find something good? Given how many containers a big ship carries you could have dozens of people doing that for two days and still not measurably affect the cargo delivery percentage. The pirates can’t hold the crew for ransom, can’t stop the ship, can’t steer it to their port o’ piracy, are going to really struggle to get any equipment up onto the ship to help them break into individual containers, don’t have the strength or equipment push the containers overboard…
      I think it’d be like trying to capture a runaway coal train.

          1. True, but at least at the smaller scale that maintenance access might only be when its unloaded – anything goes wrong at sea you hire a tug for a while. Once it gets truly giant perhaps not, as access path are so easy to add without loosing cargo room etc, and the size makes towing much harder.

            The real issue with a ship like this is its just a dumb computer, it won’t notice its GPS is spoofed, can’t navigate if its jammed, presumably is instructed on destination by rf signal of some sort. So tricking the ship to go where you want it to probably won’t be hard, its just dealing a computer (quite likely remotely) rather than waving guns in the crews face…

          2. You need access to the ship and a way to control it anyways, in case of emergency where people need to go in, such as putting out a fire or commandeering the ship when the computers glitch out and stop responding to remote control.

            Also needs some crew provisions in case you have to stay over. Suppose for example you find the ship drifting at sea, you helicopter a maintenance crew over, and they have to spend a week there fixing it.

      1. Not sure I follow your objection.
        I think the argument is that, without a human crew or enabled standard controls, it is more difficult for a pirate to gain control of the situation. No crew means that pirates have less leverage for extortion, and it seems unlikely that they would be able to sell the cargo, as you’d need a specific buyer, a safe harbour, and special equipment to unload.
        As others have mentioned, you could still extort by threatening to blow the thing up, but in that case, it’s still better for law enforcement and the shipping company if there aren’t any hostages.

    4. If those somalian pirates could afford an airline ticket to fly to Norway, they probably would not be hijacking ships in the fist place.

      Hijacking a ship in Norwegian coastal waters will also trigger a slightly different response compared with “international waters” somewhere around Africa.

      And of indeed, as other’s have already stated. It won’t go far before it’s batteries are empty.

      1. So instead you out it in a pipeline and ignore the leaks. Yeah, that’s the ticket. And those perfect humans never ever sink boats, they never run them aground, they never get then stuck in canals. And of course you can expect merchant sailors to become delta force warriors at the snap of a finger

  2. Not a word about the battery technology used. Likely not 16850 cells from used laptop packs.
    Ships would greatly benefit from Redox Flow Batteries. Charging could be done in mere hours of pumping while the typical weight/power ratio of such batteries would be less a problem than for cars.

    1. Found this elsewhere: “The zero-emission vessel will be equipped with an electric propulsion system powered by a battery pack with a capacity of up to 9MWh”
      Flow batteries generally don’t do well with movement, so rocking of the sea seems like a big issue.

    1. I’m thinking a larger version of what some smaller personal sailboats do: have a special prop that can be used to charge the batteries when under wind power.

      Use the batteries in port and when wind is low, use wind for the large open sea crossings and to charge batteries.

  3. Forty years ago, Jack Todd, of The New Alchemists, was talking about sailing ships as renewable cargo transport. I can’t remember if he was just proposing, orhe actually got a ship built. “Ocean Arks”.

    1. Big problem with sailing and cargo is the loading and unloading is complex when you have masts in the way… You also have the hull shape etc that makes a good sailing ship dictating cargo space to some extent.

      Its all solvable, but perhaps more effort than its worth, at least for the really giant cargo haulers.

  4. Maybe another example of over-engineering… and too much trust in modern technology.
    Lithium batteries is not a large scale solution : resources are too scarce and manufacturing may pollute a lot more than CO² emission.
    Why not take a more pragmatic — and used some decades ago — approach : sail + motors only for docking or in case of lack of wind ? We have now better weather forecast and knowledge of maritime currents.
    Of course, delivery will take more time, and everybody hate waiting…

      1. A lot of ships takes 1-2 weeks to cross the Atlantic for an example.
        A typical sail boat does the same.

        And time isn’t the only thing to cost money. But there is also fuel, port fees, repairs, etc.

        Sailing might not be the most “perfect” solution alone. It surely isn’t.

        But sailing is fairly efficient, and together with some on board solar, and some backup power via generators, then it likely isn’t going to take any longer than current journeys, and in the case of any future pollution related port fees, then it can potentially be cheaper as well.

        But only the future will tell where things goes, but I at least don’t think batteries is a particularly well suited solution to this problem. (I personally think biogas, especially in the form of ethane is a very practical fuel to compliment other direct energy sources, like wind and solar.)

        Though, international politics involving shipping follows the logic of “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” or in short, without shipping, most countries won’t have much of an economy. So levying port fees for pollution is as damaging to the shipping companies as it is to the port that levies the fees. (for such a fee to be efficient, it needs to be both gradual and fairly world wide. But some ports/countries already have such fees, so it is moving in the right direction at least.)

  5. “..Even if the ships run on electricity generated by fossil fuels, shifting the pollution from many ships to fewer municipal power plants is still a huge win in terms of efficiency..”

    I’m not disputing this but some numbers would be interesting to see on this. I’ve seen differing claims made about the relative overall efficiency of diesel powered ICE cars vs EV cars charged using fossil-fuel derived electricity (taking into account the efficiency at every step of the process). I imagine that freight ships generally operate in a very steady way that is quite fuel efficient for most of their journey (avoiding some of the the start/stop inefficiency that is often linked with ICE cars).

    1. The issue is less the efficiency and more the pollution. A single large power station – even burning coal – will produce less pollution OCE engines, because power stations are equipped with scrubbers etc.

      1. Not to mention that a lot of power stations use the waste heat as municipal heating, so it suddenly isn’t waste heat in the same regard. This alone tacks on a good few percentile to the overall efficiency of the power station. It is hard to do this with cars.

        Then we have the ships on the other hand.
        A lot of ships don’t have any form of exhaust cleaning, no scrubbers, catalytic converters, or anything. Then usually run on fairly “cheap” oil that tends to have a relatively high sulfur content.

        But most countries can’t do much about it.
        Levying port fees for these polluting ships just means that shipping gets disproportionally expensive for one’s ports, and this tends to stifle the economy of said country. So any such fees needs to be fairly small and only effect the “old” part of the fleets, not to mention be at least somewhat in line with the surrounding nations.

        It is hard to keep the same aggressive pace as is done in the automotive industry. After all, a ship is an investment that has a service life of typically a couple of decades, unlike cars that might be on its third of fifth owner by that point, if it hasn’t gotten scrapped.

    2. As a rule of thumb, an electric car from an oil-fired plant has half the well-to-wheel CO² emissions from a petrol fired car. This ratio imprpves when using renewable electricity.

      But the main advantage is a single plant can use filtering techniques on exhaust stacks that greatly reduce soot, particulate matter and NOx emissions compared to car engines – but only if plant operators install these things.

  6. I don’t see too much point with the “autonomous” part of the project to be fair…
    The crew on a ship doesn’t really need to steer a boat as is, there exists auto pilots already that does a lot of the grunt work.

    The things that crews actually do on ships is mainly paper work, communicate with harbors, handle the lines and securing the cargo. Not to mention fix any technical issues that arises along the journey, be it loose cargo or a broken engine.

    Things that are more important from a sustainability point of view isn’t really the crew, but rather propulsion and the types of fuel used. A lot of ships tends to run on what is practically crude oil, the idea of “clean” fule isn’t even on the radar, let alone having exhaust filtering…

    The problem is though that out in international waters, there is very few requirements as far as polluting goes. This is likely something that should be considered internationally. Though, most countries also don’t have particularly strict requirements for what can dock at their ports.

    Some ships could likely use more wind power as their main propulsion. Here it would be interesting to integrate photovoltaics into fabric as to have the sail catch some additional power that way as well. (or go with more rigid sails, but this has its own slew of downsides.) And honestly, a mix of solar, wind and perhaps a bit of biogas or similar as a backup could be what the shipping industry potentially could move to in the future.

    Though, moving a ship forward requires a lot of power.
    For an example, the Emma Mærsk is about 50 meters wide and 390 meters long, if we could “simply” add a roof of solar cells to it all, then we could fairly reasonably expect about 2 MW of power from the sun, or about 2% of its actual engine capacity. (Now, the ship likely doesn’t run at full throttle out at sea, but it is safe to say that it probably needs more than 2%.) However, the Emma Mærsk can reach 25.5 knots and that is surprisingly fast for a ship of that size. (though, the Evergiven reaches 22.8 knots, so also somewhat fast.)

    1. Came to comment the same thing. The crew is mostly not there to man the ship. There’s usually a single guy on the bridge monitoring progress. The majority of the crew is there to perform maintenance while the ship is underway

      1. Humans are an immensely versatile tool compared to any other competing system.

        Downsides with humans is mainly that they are fragile, slow, and have a risk of making simple mistakes when stress or bored. But the main advantage is the insane adaptability compared to machines that are far more application specific in comparison.

        A lot of companies makes a lot of effort towards automating away humans, and in some cases it is honestly worth while and can be a workplace improvement, in other cases it isn’t anything but unnecessary or to simply try to cut costs. Not to mention all the cases where automation is actually more expensive and/or error prone…

  7. ” 7 MWh battery”
    “two 700 kW tunnel thrusters for propulsion. There’s also a further two 900 kW Azipull pod thrusters,”

    So… battery capacity enough for about two hours under full thrust. That seems… inadequate.
    Even ridiculous efficiency assumptions of operating at say 10% capacity still have the batteries dead in less than a day.

    1. Batteries are fairly expensive as far as capacity is concerned.

      A small internal combustion engine running at peak efficiency could provide a fair bit cheaper energy “storage” on board. For an example if ethane is used, then we could store about 360 kg per m^3 at about 42 bar, or 5 MWh/m^3 before accounting for the ICE efficiency, but getting upwards of 40% isn’t unrealistic with modern engines, so that is still the better part of 2 MWh/m^3 for a fairly boring steel tank.

      Reason for ethane instead of the more traditional methane, is that methane requires a pressure of about 120 bar to store only 96 kg of gas per m^3, or about 1.46 MWh/m^3. Much higher pressure for a lot less energy. (Then there is hydrogen at 900 bar for only a few kg/m^3, storing only a few hundred kWh/m^3) And methane can easily be converted to ethane with fairly minimal losses, a lot of the loss comes in the form of also producing propane, butane, etc as by products.

      If the gas is sourced from a renewable source, for an example waste water treatment, carbon capture, or similar, then it is a fairly carbon neutral energy storage solution. Instead of spending tons of resources on relatively expensive batteries that could see better use in more nimble applications where one doesn’t have a literal ship to power.

      But to be fair, no single solution is perfect. A good ship would likely use a bit of everything. As in have a battery bank, some generators, solar panels on applicable surfaces and maybe even a sail or three. They all have their pros and cons.

      Though, the 7 MWh capacity of the ship in the article is likely more due to the fact that a 2 hour trip might be all that it needs. Norway for an example has a lot of smaller islands along its coast, so for a test platform, supporting these smaller communities with poor freight connections is a good way to get some additional government founding into the project.

    2. “Even ridiculous efficiency assumptions of operating at say 10% capacity still have the batteries dead in less than a day.”

      A smaller cargo ship needs it’s full power only when manouvring in port. In cruising only a minimal amount of power is needed (10% seems low but I wouldn’t be surprized) although it depends a lot on wind and flow (when sailing upriver)

      I don’t know how this works for the huge container ships that rely on tugs for port manouvring.

  8. The first electric inland freighter just made it’s maiden voyage in the Netherlands. It has a 104TEU capacity and will mostly transport beer over a 100km distance. It uses two shipping containers filled with batteries containing “2.4MW” (I assume MWh) as it’s power source, which are exchanged in port and then “slow charged”.

  9. “Autonomous Electric Cargo Ship”. Unionize the computer and garnish its wages. It’s the only way this will be allowed – because the corrupt Politicians will get a “taste” of the money.

  10. Reducing emissions by changing shipping to electric but costs a lot of money. Eliminating all sailing and shipping jobs to save money. I am guessing that shipping and ports will be much more interested in that second point

  11. Why not nuclear power for those enormous cargo ships, as with the US Navy carriers?

    One lifetime charge, and there you go!

    And if pirates get aboard, remotely open some “radiation vents”, and problem solved…!

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