Norwegian ship construction specialist Vard has scooped the contract to build the proposed all-electric, autonomous container ship Yara Birkeland – an order that could prove a significant leap forward in the evolution of unmanned vessels.Plans for the the 80m x 15m Yara Birkeland , as designed by Marin Teknikk, have been on the table for some time now: for example, it was in May 2017 that tech specialist Kongsberg announced it was teaming up with Norwegian fertiliser company (and end user) Yara to develop the vessel. However, confirmation of the Vard contract, reportedly valued at US$29.7 million, now provides a solid timeframe for the vessel’s development.
Vard will build the vessel at its Brevik facility in Norway, with its Braila yard in Romania handling the hull, working towards a delivery date of Q1 2020. Upon delivery to Yara, the vessel will initially undertake manned sailings, gradually switching to fully autonomous mode by 2022. The 120teu-capacity vessel will incorporate a ballast-free design and run on battery power.
The Yara Birkeland project has been supported to the tune of NOK 133.6 million (US$15.9 million) by Enova, an initiative spearheaded by the Norwegian government’s Ministry of Climate and Environment. Yara will deploy the vessel on routes between its fertiliser plant at Porsgrunn and the ports of Brevik (to the south) and Larvik (to the south-east). The operator claims that Yara Birkeland will have the potential to reduce diesel-powered truck haulage by approximately 40,000 journeys per year, thus drastically reducing NOx and CO2 emissions – while, hopefully, improving road safety –within the region.
Kongsberg will be responsible for outfitting the vessel with the sensors and equipment required for autonomous operations, as well as her electric drive, battery and propulsion control systems. Earlier this year, Kongsberg and compatriot ship operator Wilhelmsen established a new joint venture, Massterly, dedicated to the management of autonomous ships – though, speaking to Ship & Boat International in late August, Kongsberg said it was still to be decided whether Massterly would fulfil this role for Yara Birkeland.