Crewless electric cargo ships may be on the horizon in Norway

Enlarge / Robo-cranes load cargo onto the robo-boat Yara Birkeland in this rendering of the drone ship, under construction in Norway. (credit: Konsberg Gruppen)

SpaceX’s drone landing ships have already proven that uncrewed vessels can handle some of the most dangerous jobs at sea. Now, two Norwegian companies are poised to put robo-boats into one of the most dull: hauling cargo down the fjord.

Two Norwegian companies are teaming together to construct a short-range, all-electric coastal container ship that will eventually operate autonomously—eliminating up to 40,000 diesel truck trips per year. The ship, the Yara Birkeland, will begin operations in 2018 with a crew, but it’s expected to operate largely autonomously (and crewless) by 2020 (regulatory clearance permitting, of course).

The $25 million Birkeland—described by some shipping executives as the “Tesla of the Seas”— is being jointly developed by the fertilizer company Yara and the maritime and defense technology firm Kongsberg Gruppen. The ship will initially be crewed from an on-board control center within a cargo container. Eventually, the container will be moved ashore, and the ship will be remotely operated. It will navigate autonomously by utilizing GPS and avoid collisions using a combination of sensors.

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