While self-driving cars are regularly in the news, we haven't heard as much noise on the autonomous shipping front, which could have equally far-reaching ramifications. Now Norwegian company Yara has teamed up with maritime technology company Kongsberg to build the world's first all-electric and autonomous container ship, which is set to hit the high seas late in 2018.




The hi-tech container ship, named Yara Birkeland, will carry chemicals and fertilizer from Yara's Prosgrunn production plant to the nearby towns of Brevik and Larvik. It will first operate as a manned vessel in 2018, before transitioning to remote operation in 2019 and fully autonomous control by 2020.

The most immediate benefit of the new operation comes from a major reduction in NOx and CO2 emissions as the company shifts its product transportation from what previously required 40,000 truck journeys a year to this new, all-electric shipping pathway.

"With this new autonomous battery-driven container vessel we move transport from road to sea and thereby reduce noise and dust emissions, improve the safety of local roads, and reduce NOx and CO2 emissions," says Svein Tore Holsether, President and CEO of YARA.

The Yara Birkeland

On the autonomous side of things there are still plenty of pragmatic and regulatory hurdles to overcome before there are fully robotic ships crisscrossing our oceans. Norway is at the forefront of working through these issues with the Norwegian Maritime Authority and the Norwegian Coastal Administration last year signing an agreement designating the Trondheim fjord as the world's first test area specifically for autonomous ships.

We also recently saw Rolls Royce propose a vision of autonomous shipping where robotic ships with no decks were remotely monitored by teams in control centres on shore. The advantages of autonomous or remote-controlled ships could be immense, with vessels redesigned for maximum efficiency by removing any need for human cabins or decks.

With Yara and Kongsberg launching the first commercial, all-electric, autonomous container ship, it seems the gauntlet has been dropped. Their expectations of a 2020 date for fully autonomous operations mirrors the date Rolls Royce predicted last year, so it's likely a future of self-piloted sea vessels could be coming faster than self-driving cars.