In the Golden Age of Piracy stories of haunted, crewless ships sailing the seas were the stuff of legend. Shipbuilding has come a long way since then, and 2018 will mark the biggest leap in shipbuilding and seafaring technology in recent memory.
The Yara Birkeland, the world’s first autonomous and crewless ship will set sail around the coast of Norway in 2018. The ship debuts in 2018, but will not be fully autonomous until 2020. In the meantime, a crew will operate the Yara Birkeland for a short time, and then operated remotely, before becoming autonomous.
The Yara Birkeland is one of the most sustainable ships ever conceived as well as the world’s first autonomous ship, as it’s electric-powered and smaller than most container ships. The manufacturers of the ship expect it to reduce the emissions of roughly “40,000 truck drives a year,” that will no longer be necessary after the Birkeland sets sail. Furthermore, it will help companies save costs at an unprecedented level. The Birkeland costs $25 million to produce, which according to the Wall Street Journal is “about three times as much as a conventional ship of similar size,” however, the money saved on fuel and crew expenses “will save up to 90% in annual costs.”
The “Tesla of the Seas,” as the shipbuilders call it, will deliver fertilizer to farms up and down the coast of Norway. Much like autonomous vehicles, the Yara Birkeland will utilize “GPS, radar, cameras, and sensors,” to navigate itself successfully around other boats and even dock itself when it arrives at port.
Autonomous ships with sustainable energy sources are the future of the maritime shipping industry, however it’s uncharted territory in terms of regulation and use. The International Maritime Organization won’t be implement autonomous ship regulation until 2020. Until then, the seas will exist in a delicate state of flux where autonomous and traditional ships will coexist without clear rules governing their interactions. Moreover, it is unclear among industry experts how other companies will use these ships. The Yara Birkeland’s journey will be a short, 37-mile loop along the Norwegian coast. The makers of the Yara Birkeland hope to invest in larger ships capable of making longer journeys, but other industry leaders are less optimistic, arguing they will be great for short trips, but won’t be as feasible for thousand mile journeys that span oceans and continents.
Until the IMO implements regulations, it is difficult to say how prevalent autonomous ships will be in our oceans. For most of our history, the seas have been a source of adventure, excitement, and discovery. Now we stand on the precipice of the next chapter in our long relationship with the seas, and we all will wait and watch with as great a sense of adventure and excitement as ever, looking to see what this new chapter will bring.