Companies Team Up to Launch a “Robo-boat” by 2020


Two Norwegian companies are working together to build zero-emission, completely unmanned ships

Several companies have been very public about their race to introduce fully-automated cars to the marketplace by 2020. Did you know that two Norwegian companies have teamed up to do the same but with a fully-automated boat?

A Costly Start but Promising Future

The Yara Birkeland will be a short-range, fully electric coastal container ship. It will begin its career modestly as a “feeder” cargo ship, ferrying containers of fertilizer to and from larger ships.

It’s co-developers, Kongsberg Gruppen and Yara International, plan for the Birkeland to start operations by 2018 with a human crew aboard. Over the next two years, more of the ships’ functions will move away from human operation until its running remotely by 2020.

“At first, a single container will be used as a manned bridge on board,” Kongsberg’s chief executive Geir Haoy told the Wall Street Journal. “Then the bridge will be moved to shore and become a remote-operation centre. The ship will eventually run fully on its own, under supervision from shore, in 2020.”

The technology isn’t cheap though. The price tag for the vessel sits at $25 million, almost three times the cost of standard container ships of similar size. The cost has to do with the ship’s enhanced capabilities. It’ll be able to handle things like docking and navigation on its own (something regular container ships don’t do). Given the specialized systems onboard, the cost of on-site repairs will also be pricey further driving up the cost.

Despite the high initial investment, both companies claim that the benefits are worth it. The vessel will:

  • Eliminate 40,000 diesel trucks trips annually
  • Significantly reduce harmful carbon emissions
  • Improve the safety of local roads
  • Save up to 90% of its cost by what it reduces in crew member and fuel spending

Autonomous Vessels are the Future

The push towards autonomous sea faring vehicles isn’t being driven by Norwegian companies alone. An article in Arstechnica referencing the Wall Street Journal interview points out that Rolls-Royce Holding PLC has similar plans. Rolls Royce plans to launch robot ships by 2020, but its fleet may include tugboats, cargo ships and ferries.

SpaceX piloted a program to use uncrewed drone ships. However, their interest was in having the ship do the dangerous task of rocket landing and retrieval.

Kongsberg itself has been active with its investments in autonomous technology with its partnership with Automated Ships Ltd (ASL). They worked together in the past to develop a prototype unmanned utility ship and are now working with Bourbon Offshore to construct a robot oil rig support ship.

Autonomous vehicles are the future. Whether it be through land, air or sea, both people and cargo will soon be transported safely and efficiently to their destinations. While there are still concerns over the legal, moral and economic consequences of such technology, its benefits for supply chains and especially for the environment are too important to halt.

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