Towards the end of next year, the container ship ‘Yara Birkeland’ will begin its maiden voyage, shipping products from Yara’s production plant in Porsgrunn, Norway, along the Norwegian coastline to the ports of Brevik and Larvik.

While there’s perhaps nothing unusual about a container ship plying its trade, this time is an exception, because the ‘Yara Birkeland’ will be the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship. 

The vessel’s introduction shows how times are changing for those seeking a life on the ocean waves. A career developed through the Merchant Navy used to be an established route into working for a global shipping company.

But increasingly, the future of commercial shipping is likely to require fewer people at sea, as unmanned and autonomous ships take to the waves. Instead, jobs may be found in remote control centres at home, piloting from dry land the journeys of autonomous vessels across the seas to their destinations.

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In June 2017, the Maritime Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) agreed to include the issue of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) on its agenda.

Given the rapid developments being seen in the introduction of unmanned, commercially operated ships, the committee will carry out a scoping exercise to explore which IMO regulations may need to be amended, “in order to ensure that the construction and operation of MASS are carried out safely, securely, and in an environmentally sound manner”.

This scoping exercise will look at a range of issues, including the human element of unmanned ships, safety, security, interactions with ports and responses to incidents.

There are a number of benefits for commercial shippers in moving towards an unmanned future.

Safety

The first is safety. According to an overview of marine casualties and incidents produced by the European Maritime Safety Agency, almost two-thirds (62%) of accidental events between 2011 and 2015 were attributed to a ‘Human Erroneous Action’.

Cost

Reducing the operating costs of commercial shipping also provides an enormous incentive for carriers to pursue unmanned vessels. With a large proportion of operating costs attributable to staff, the possibility of reducing the number of those on board vessels is an attractive one for many shippers.

Emissions

Electrically powered autonomous ships also promise to provide significant environmental benefits over today’s crewed vessels, as ships become lighter and more fuel-efficient. Much like the growing shift away from diesel cars towards electrically driven and increasingly autonomous vehicles, tomorrow’s ships are likely to be battery-powered and more environmentally friendly.

For example, by travelling along the sea-borne coastal route instead of inland highways, the ‘Yara Birkeland’ will replace as many as 40,000 truck journeys from populated urban areas, thus improving road safety whilst also reducing NOx and CO2 emissions.

Rolls-Royce – whose Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative is looking at how remote and autonomous shipping will become a reality – has previously predicted that we will see a remote-controlled ship in commercial use by the end of the decade. 

‘Yara Birkeland’ gives a preview of that likely future. While the vessel will operate initially as a manned vessel, it will begin remote operation in 2019 and is set to perform fully autonomous operations from 2020.

Of course, for many people, the idea of an unmanned, electric cargo ship plying the world’s oceans may seem like something out of a science fiction film.

But, judging by current developments, by the end of the decade that ship will have well and truly sailed.