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Container Shipping & Trade

Container Shipping & Trade

World-first autonomous box ship to deliver significant supply chain benefits

Thu 20 Jul 2017 by Rebecca Moore

World-first autonomous box ship to deliver significant supply chain benefits
Yara Birkeland will slash 40,000 lorry journeys a year by taking containers off the road and transporting them via inland waterways instead

Kongsberg Maritime has joined forces with fertiliser producer Yara to build an autonomous box vessel that will provide financial, environmental and supply chain efficiency benefits. The two sides tell CST about the project

Fertiliser production group Yara has begun working with Kongsberg Maritime to produce the world’s first fully electric and autonomous unmanned container ship.

Together they will develop and build Yara Birkeland, which will initially operate as a manned vessel when delivered in 2018, moving to remote operations in 2019. Yara expects the ship to be able to perform fully autonomous operations from 2020.

A major benefit is that the ship will remove the need for up to 40,000 lorry journeys each year as finished fertiliser is taken from Yara’s production plant in Porsgrunn, Norway, to its regional container hubs by the sea in Brevik and Larvik.

At present, 100 containers of fertiliser are taken every day by truck to these hubs, from where it is shipped to key markets in Asia and South-America. Instead, Yara Birkeland will take it via inland waterways on a voyage of approximately 32nm (roughly 58 km).

Kongsberg Maritime’s strategic projects manager Peter Due told CST that a major reason behind using an autonomous vessel was cost. “Building a ship is much cheaper without the hotel side. If you reduce the building costs and remove the need for onboard crew, then this model can compete with trucking.” During its manned operations next year, containerised temporary crew accommodation will be installed.

Yara’s head of external and corporate communications Kristin Nordal expanded on the benefits, telling CST:While the initial investment will be higher than on similar sized conventional ships, we expect to reduce OPEX cost significantly by transferring truck transport to this unmanned, electric, ballast-free vessel.”

Crucially, the project fits in with Yara’s wider strategy. “Yara’s main contribution to the world is to deliver crop nutrition to increase food production and environmental solutions to abate emissions from industry and transport. In doing so, we continuously look for ways to reduce our own emissions by adopting new and innovative solutions in production and transportation,” said Ms Nordel.

She emphasised that improving its supply chain and planning optimal material flows between locations “is key to keeping our position in the industry” as a global fertiliser company, with 27 production plants in Europe, the Americas and Australia, and sales in about 160 countries.

Yara Birkeland will be fitted with batteries that will be charged with clean Norwegian hydro power during loading and unloading, leading to the reduction of 700 tonnes of CO2 emissions every year.

The vessel will be 75m long, with a draught of 5m and capacity for 100-150 teu. While the concept design has been finalised, a shipyard has yet to be chosen to build it. But it is expected that the shipyard contract will be awarded later this year (see timeline).

Kongsberg is responsible for developing and delivering all key enabling technologies on Yara Birkeland, including the sensors and integration required for remote and autonomous operations, the electric drive, battery and propulsion control systems.

It is currently building a digital twin of the vessel, where all data is harvested once the ship goes into service. An engine onboard will interpret all the data from the journey, including emissions management, and this will be integrated with Yara’s onshore systems.  

The ship will also be equipped with an automatic mooring system and loading and unloading will be done automatically using electric cranes and straddle carriers. “This means the handling ashore is autonomous too. It is not just the vessel that we are looking at, but the whole supply chain,” Mr Due said.

He added that the biggest hurdle is that there are no rules and regulations in existence to monitor the building and design of an autonomous ship, so it has been important to collaborate with various governing bodies and authorities, such as Norwegian Maritime Authority and Norwegian Coastal Administration on legislation. The project has also applied for support through the Norwegian Government scheme ENOVA, which invests in solutions that help build a greener Norway, and there is close dialogue between Yara and ENOVA.

Ms Nordel also highlighted the importance of working with other organisations: “A pioneering project like Yara Birkeland cannot be developed in isolation, so for us the key to success is collaboration.” Yara was “happy to partner with Kongsberg for this game-changing project,” she said. 

The project marks the start of more innovation within Yara’s supply chain. “We will see how we can learn from this project to improve transportation to and from other production sites in Yara,” She added.

This project will not just impact Yara, it could have ramifications for the wider container ship industry. “Europe has challenges with congested waterways, so the potential for projects such as this is huge,” commented Mr Due.

Ms Nordel echoed that assessment, saying that Yara Birkeland “represents pioneering innovation and will set a new standard in the maritime sector for short sea shipping.”

Vessel particulars

  • LOA: 70 m
  • Beam: 15m
  • Depth: 12m
  • Draught (full): 5m
  • Draught (ballast): 3m
  • Service speed: 6kn
  • Max speed: 10kn
  • Cargo capacity: 100-150teu
  • Deadweight: 3,500-4,500 tonnes




  • Electric propulsion
  • Two azimuthing pods
  • Two tunnel thrusters
  • Battery pack capacity: 3.5-4.0 MWh

Key sensors

  • Camera
  • Radar
  •  AIS
  • Lidar
  • IR camera


Timeline Milestones

2017: Design finalised - design completed by Marin Teknikk, Norway.
Building contract to be awarded

2018: The vessel will be delivered from the yard in the second half of 2018.

2018: Testing with a captain and small crew, placed in a container-based bridge and crew unit, is scheduled to start second half of 2018

2019: Remote control tests will be carried out in 2019

2020: The vessel will be fully autonomous in 2020










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