The Vard Braila shipyard in Romania is building the world's first fully autonomous, electric freight ship for Norwegian fertiliser manufacturer Yara International, which could replace up to 40,000 truck journeys each year across southern Norway.
The ‘Yara Birkeland' is relatively small for a freighter, at 70m long and 14m wide. Despite that, it can carry up to 120 containers , as space that would normally go to crew quarters can be taken up by cargo.
The Kongsberg Group is delivering ‘key enabling technologies' for the ship, including sensors, the electric drive, battery and propulsion control systems and the integration for remote and autonomous ship operations.
Even mooring and unberthering will be automated, as will loading and unloading - using electric cranes and equipment. The ship will also have no need for conventional ballast, instead using the 7-9MWh battery pack as permanent ballast.
The downside to using battery technology is that it is ill-suited to long routes, so the ship will only make short journeys, between the ports of Herøya, Brevik and Larvik (approximately 30 nautical miles in total).
Distance is a major factor for electric ships to overcome. Weather and currents have a significant impact on power consumption, and the batteries are both heavy and take up a lot of room. Without places to stop and charge, like electric cars enjoy (and we can only imagine how long it would take to charge up a freight ship!), they are limited to hugging coastlines.
The total cost of the project is €27 million, of which the Norwegian government is supplying more than half (€14 million): part of the country's on-going efforts to replace diesel trucks with cleaner alternatives. The country established the Norwegian Forum for Autonomous Ships in 2016.
The Yara Birkeland is due to be delivered in 2020, and will move from manned operation (the hull will have a detachable bridge module when it is finished) to full autonomy by 2022.
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