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Revolution for inland shipping depends on the success of the Yara Birkeland

(Photo: Kongsberg)

Autonomous shipping, that is ships that operate with little or no crew, are expected to be introduced in coastal waters where regional authorities, rather than the International Maritime Organization (IMO) hold sway. One of the first commercial vessels, the Yara Birkeland, is set to enter service next year.

Yara Birkeland is currently under construction in the Vard Brevik yard in Norway, following the construction of the hull at Vard’s hull yard in Romania. The vessel will be the first commercial ship to be operated fully automatically.

Yara itself is an agricultural products manufacturer, with one of their factories based in Porsgrunn in Norway, less than 10 miles from where the vessel itself will be completed. Yara Executive Vice President, Peter Due, told FreightWaves, “Sea trials of the Yara Birkeland are due to begin in the second quarter of 2020 and the first operations are due to take place in the third quarter, but the ship will initially be operated manually.”

Due said that the ship is really pushing the boundaries of innovation combining new technologies with zero emissions technology. However, “Yara Birkeland is not just a ship,” explained Due, “it’s a fully autonomous, zero emission, logistics solution that starts within the factory.”

Electric straddle carriers that lift containers automatically within the factory also then transport the boxes to the quayside, where an electric crane will load the vessel with its cargo. The vessel itself is fully electric and will travel on a circular route from Porsgrunn to Brevik and Larvik delivering cargo for onward transportation.

The whole operation will replace the 40,000 truck journeys undertaken from factory to ports every year, explains Due.

“We are the first mover so the costs of the project are considerably higher than will be the case for those coming after us, we have had to build into the project an extreme amount of redundancy with automated straddle carriers operating in a mixed traffic environment that includes other cars and pedestrians, but in the future that redundancy will be considerably less,” said Due.

Yara is also keen to point out that the project itself is part of a necessary collaboration between the agri-products company, Kongsberg, Kalmar the vessel designers, Marin Teknikk, the Norwegian maritime authorities, the Vard shipyard and safety assurance providers such as DNV GL.

“In addition, the IMO, which is carrying out a scoping exercise to see what regulations need to be adapted for automated ships that will operate in international waters are watching very closely,” said Due.

But the IMO will not be the only regulatory authority watching closely, the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine (CCNR), which in effect sets the regulation for all European rivers and canals, is also interested in the development of Yara Birkeland.

CCNR Administrator Benjamin Boyer had already made the point in January 2019 when he said that the IMO does not regulate the more than 5600 miles of inland waterways in Europe, and the CCNR is already conducting trials for barge trains and the authority can see the advantages of automated ships too.

Due, however, also points out that there needs to be integration between the modes of transport and that port energy supplies need to be improved to operate on cleaner energy also.

That may take time and the costs can be high, Yara invested in remodelling its factory building and production line as well as building a new quay and designing and building the ship, though Due said that much of this work would have needed to happen in any case.

“But the real benefits of this solution is that there is less noise, less air pollution and safer roads and to cap it all this solution [Yara Birkeland] is cheaper, up to 30 percent in operating expenses, than the previous solution,” claimed Due.