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World’s first autonomous cargo ship to enter service in 2018



Faced by “cratering profits,” low margins and bankruptcy, shipping companies are starting to look at ways they can roll out autonomous cargo ships faster than planned.


Last year the CEO of Rolls Royce announced his company’s grand plan to create fleets of “Ghost ships,” then, in a later article about autonomous cargo ships I shone a light on what other companies are doing in the space and discussed the development of a crewless, electrically powered Norwegian prototype that now, just a few months on, after being christened the Yara Birkeland, will start sailing in 2018. Initially the ship will have a giddy speed of just 10 knots and be used to deliver fertiliser along a 37 mile stretch of coast in southern Norway.


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The electric-powered ship will be miniscule by modern standards, although Rolls Royce plan on rolling out larger ships starting 2020, with the capacity for 100 to 150 shipping containers. But its arrival could be a huge turning point for the global shipping industry.

The ship, which will cost $25 million, which is about three times as much as a conventional ship of similar size, is expected to save up to 90% in annual operating costs by eliminating both fuel and crew.


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Though it is projected to launch next year, it will only transition to fully autonomous operation in stages, and just like the US’ first fully autonomous mine hunter, the Sea Hunter, which launched last year, it will first be operated by an on board crew, then remotely, before becoming fully autonomous by 2020, which is the same time that many hope new rules governing autonomous ships will come into force.


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That said though that could be delayed after the world’s first GPS spoofing attack, that put more than 20 ships “at an airport” was unmasked because unless companies can find a way to prevent these spoofing attacks from happening again in the future then unmanned, autonomous ships could be a very juicy target for criminals.

The Yara Birkeland is being developed by the agricultural firm Yara International and guidance system maker Konsberg, and a Yara executive said that once regulations catch up, the company plans is to build bigger ships that could work longer routes. If similar cost savings could be achieved, it could be a lifeline for the global shipping industry, which has spent years struggling with overcapacity and falling rates, leading to cratering profits and even bankruptcy for major firms.


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The impact of autonomous ships may be milder than that of self-driving freight trucks, though, when it comes to jobs. While driverless trucks could put hundreds of thousands of human drivers out of work in the US alone, the relative crew needs of shipping have already been declining for decades, from hundreds to just tens, with many container ships, including those carrying more than 10,000 containers, already using 30 crew members or less.

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