Autonomous sea-going vessels likely to be launched before driverless cars

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The vast majority of the world’s goods are shipped – quite literally – by sea. According to the International Maritime Organization, 90 per cent of the world’s trade is carried by ships and boats. 

The IMO adds that the sea “is, by far, the most cost-effective way to move en masse goods and raw materials around the world”.

So while we’re all waiting for drones and driverless vehicles to deliver our online shopping orders by road and by air, it seems the really big trends are all at sea. 

A number of historically seafaring nations are leading the race to develop autonomous ships – Japan and Norway naturally among them.

But it’s thought by some that Norway is slightly ahead of Japan because a Norwegian company called Kongsberg is already taking orders for its autonomous vessels.

Recently it received an order to build what it says will be “the world’s first autonomous, fully-automated and cost-efficient prototype vessel for offshore operations”.

Bourbon provides services to the oil and gas industry, which is one of Norway’s largest industries. The company has signed a deal with Automated Ships and Kongsberg on the project to build an autonomous vessel which has been named “Hrönn”.

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The autonomous ship Hrönn seen from the stern

Gael Bodénès, CEO of Bourbon, says: “In this era of digitalization of industrial services, we are pleased to join this forward-looking project thus demonstrating the positioning of Bourbon as a world reference in terms of operational excellence and customer experience.”

Brett Phaneuf, CEO, Automated Ships, says: “Bourbon is a world leading marine services company and we are confident that alongside Kongsberg as technology lead, they will provide a valuable contribution to the design and operation of Hrönn.”

Stene Førsund, EVP global sales and marketing, Kongsberg Maritime, says: “We are pleased to be collaborating with such expert partners in the development of Hrönn, a vessel that will show how digitalisation and autonomy have the potential to revolutionise the offshore services market.”

Geographically, Norway is a huge northern European country with more than 25,000 km of coastline.

So it follows that Kongsberg is developing a range of autonomous sea-going vessels to navigate what can be treacherous waters for sailors.

Its most recently revealed vessel is claimed to be the “the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship, with zero emissions”, named the Yara Birkeland.

Yara is an agricultural fertiliser company which needs to move massive cargoes many thousands of kilometres. The company is looking to reduce or maybe even eliminate the need to make the 40,000 truck journeys it currently makes through often populated urban areas.

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Kongsberg says the autonomous and fully electric Yara Birkeland will be “the world’s most advanced container feeder ship”

Svein Tore Holsether, CEO of Yara, says: “As a leading global fertilizer company with a mission to feed the world and protect the planet, investing in this zero emission vessel to transport our crop nutrition solutions fits our strategy well.

“We are proud to work with Kongsberg to realize the world’s first autonomous, all-electric vessel to enter commercial operation.”

Geir Håøy, CEO of Kongsberg, says: “By moving container transport from land to sea, Yara Birkeland is the start of a major contribution to fulfilling national and international environmental impact goals.

“The new concept is also a giant step forward towards increased seaborne transportation in general.”

Håøy adds: “Developing systems for autonomous operations is a major opening and natural step for Kongsberg, considering our decades of expertise in the development and integration of advanced sensors, control and communication systems for all areas of ship operations.

“Yara Birkeland will set the benchmark for the application of innovative maritime technology for more efficient and environmentally friendly shipping.”


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