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?