MV Yara Birkeland, Autonomous Container Ship — Is This Really a Good Idea?

The first autonomous container ship, the 120 TEU feeder vessel, MV Yara Birkeland, will be launched in 2018. The ship will also be battery-powered and emissions-free. After a period of testing with a crew, the ship is expected to go into autonomous service in 2020. MV Yara Birkeland will sail on two routes within Norway, between Herøya and Brevik (~7 nautical miles (13 km)) and between Herøya and Larvik (~30 nautical miles (56 km)) carrying chemicals and fertilizer. The ship is being jointly developed by two Norwegian companies — agricultural firm Yara International and Kongsberg Gruppen, which builds guidance systems for both civilian and military use.

One question needs to be asked — are autonomous ships really a good idea?  According to the Wall Street Journal, MV Yara Birkeland will cost $25 million, or about three times as much as a conventional container ship of its size. The ship’s backers say that a reduction of the ship’s operating cost by 90% will help pay for the significantly higher capital cost. 

Currently, there is no regulatory framework to allow autonomous ships. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) doesn’t expect legislation governing crewless ships to be in place before 2020. 

Many doubt the feasibility of deep-sea autonomous ships. The Wall Street Journal quotes Lars Jensen, chief executive of SeaIntelligence Consulting in Copenhagen:  “It’s not a matter of technology, which is already there, but a business case. Autonomous ships are expensive to begin with, and have to be built very robust, because if they break down, the cost of getting a team to fix them it in the middle of the ocean will be very high.”

There are also questions of security. Concerns about GPS spoofing, the ability to remotely take over control the GPS navigation systems on ships, makes the electronic hijacking of ships a real threat.  This would apply particularly to crewless or autonomous ships.  

The most fundamental questions about autonomous ships have yet to be answered.  What happens when a ship breaks down or catches fire at sea and there is no one aboard to respond?  And can seamanship and the judgment of a skilled watch officer be replaced by an algorithm?  

The world’s first autonomous, zero emission container ship

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6 Responses to MV Yara Birkeland, Autonomous Container Ship — Is This Really a Good Idea?

  1. Willy says:

    I would think a automated ship would be much better than one with a crew. Fire suppression is a no brainer as there is no need to worry about if a person can breath in a situation. If there is a fire, the computer would seal the area anp pump in exhaust air to extinguish the air.

    Maintenance is the only real factor. The ship will have to be stopped some where for service. Yet to run a ship from port to port shouldnt be a problem.

  2. Henry Parsons says:

    We need much more information to make even a start on a discussion of whether autonomous ships are a good idea
    a. How good is the guidance system in avoiding objects? Can the system pick up small, low objects such as human powered vessels, or small sailboats?
    b. It is a rule of the sea that ships must respond to other vessels distress. This will not be possible with this ship.
    c. Would it be possible to have a one person crew on board to handle emergencies or would the boat be totally unmanned?
    d. In event of carrying hazmat how would the immediate response necessary to prevent ecological disaster be handled if the ship was unmanned?
    e. How secure are the electronics from outside interference?
    f. What happens if the electronics should fail?

    We must also think in terms of the employment losses should such ships become standard. Food for thought: Perhaps the added operating expenses of not having robotic workplaces is outweighed by the benefits of providing employment opportunities.

  3. On the shuttle route planned it should not be a problem. However ocean routes would be a problem, those already listed and commented on plus the boarding of Port Pilots which will be required by countries and of course those USN warships loose on the High Seas. Seriously overall for now it is rather impractical. Once regulations are in place from IMO maybe. Good luck with getting IMO regulations in place considering how long past regulations have taken to agree on and get signed.

    Good Watch

  4. Doug Bostrom says:

    Considering that incidents reports are full of “watchkeeper was asleep on bridge with BNWAS turned off,” with turns failing to be made and subsequent humiliation and mayhem, having the ship make the turn for waypoints already electronically entered in the navigation plan seems not such a bad idea. Maybe with a klaxon just to call attention to the failure?

    As well, reports are full of “engineering and deck departments did not know how to use hi-fog, turn ventilation off/on, etc.” generally in the Read The F–king Manual category. But with crews rotated on and off ships and never getting to learn a vessel properly is this any surprise?

    In not so many years crews will be smaller but still present, with specialized knowledge handled in a robotic fashion by the ship. The bulk of staffing will be in engineering. Since by our empirical data navigation seems too boring and predictable to survive human nature, navigation will be mostly handled in robotic fashion.

  5. Doug Bostrom says:

    Henry Parson’s list of questions is great.

  6. Doug Bostrom says:

    Last chatter:

    For an excellent example of how officers are setting the industry up for their own replacement by integrated circuits, see this report from the MAIB, fresh but utterly familiar:

    Long story short: the ship itself had all the information needed to prevent a grounding (and career rearrangements) but was actively prevented from alerting officers, by the officers themselves. Own goal.