The Future of Shipping is Autonomous

There was a time when ships at sea without any crew on board were called ‘ghost ships.’ Not anymore. Yara International, with the help of the Norwegian state, is at an advanced stage of planning for an autonomous, full electric cargo ship. Yara International believes the ship, 70 metres long and 14 metres wide and with 120 containers on board, will be able to replace up to 40,000 journeys per year currently made by its diesel counterparts.

The ship will take advantage of advances in battery technology, the same which has allowed trucking to make moves in a similar direction. However, the advances made aren’t enough for any of the world’s long-haul routes, so for the short-term, autonomous ships are more likely to have an impact on shorter routes like those around the Baltic and North Seas. But if the project is a success, it opens up all kinds of possibilities for maritime navigation.

The project, which will cost a total of around 150 million Norwegian Kroner, or 27 million euro, will be part-funded by the Norwegian government, itself a pioneer in shipping. Norway has invested its mineral wealth into a sovereign fund, which finances projects like this. As a pioneer in shipping - and a country with a large fishing industry - the project was of particular national interest. Spread across the entire industry, the innovation has the potential to save millions of journeys currently made every year by diesel sea crafts.

Of course, it won’t all be plain sailing (excuse the pun). Although it seems like a panacea, there are still difficulties inherent in battery-powered shipping. For one, as this project has shown, investment costs are still significant, costing several million more than traditional fuel-powered boats of comparable size. Also, battery powered boats aren’t as capable of dealing with the vagaries of water currents as regular ships, with strong currents running down batteries far faster than engineers first envisaged.

Nevertheless, this represents a huge step forward that we can all get behind. Autonomous shipping may be the greatest innovation in this industry since the advent of container shipping in the middle of the 20th century. And as anyone that has read Rose George’s brilliant book on global shipping ‘90 percent of everything’ can attest, shipping is an industry which badly needs more focus - and indeed, investment - on sustainable practices. For that reason, we can all get behind this admirable innovation from Yara International and the Norwegian government.