The first crewless electric cargo ship begins its maiden voyage this year


Autonomous cargo hauling won’t be limited to a handful of trucks and aircraft. As CNN reports, Yara International now expects to sail the first autonomous, fully electric cargo ship in Norway by the end of 2021. The Yara Birkeland will travel from Herøya to Brevik with only three remote control centers keeping watch over the journey.

Yara first developed the concept in 2017 and had planned to set sail in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the trip. It’s not the first crewless ship of any kind to venture forth (a Finnish ferry launched in 2018), but it is the first all-electric model.

It’s a slow vessel with a 13-knot top speed from its two 900kW propulsion systems (container ships typically travel at 16 to 25 knots), and it’s safe to say the giant 7MWh battery will take a while to charge. However, Yara believes it will be worthwhile for the environmental gains. The firm estimated the Yara Birkeland would replace about 40,000 truck trips per year, dramatically reducing CO2 and nitrous oxide emissions in a country that already relies heavily on hydroelectric power. The ship could also alleviate traffic congestion on land, not to mention keep humans out of danger (albeit at the possible expense of jobs).

It may still be a long while before you see autonomous cargo haulers making trips elsewhere. Even if range isn’t an issue, docks are — it would be harder for a self-sailing ship to navigate a busy port like Durban or Shanghai. There are also legal issues. Different countries have their own rules for the sea. As with self-driving cars, there’s also the matter of liability. Who’s to blame if an autonomous ship runs aground? While it’s easy to see a day when autonomous electric ships are commonplace, that day likely isn’t close at hand.

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