There’s a quiet revolution underway in the smaller, niche, trades of the world. Innovative shipping companies are testing small, autonomous, and often electrically-powered, coastal ships.
Global forwarder DB Schenker has, on 05 May 2022, signed a letter of intent with furniture giant Ekornes, ship designers Naval Dynamics and Wilhelmsen-owned company Massterly, to run an autonomous electric coastal feeder along the Norwegian coast. The new vessel is based on the Naval Dynamics NDS AutoBarge 250 concept and is developed in partnership with Kongsberg and Massterly.
The vessel will run between the minor port of Ikornnes to the Port of Alesund (on the Norwegian Sea coast) which connects to other European ports. The new feeder will complete a 43km (23 nautical mile) voyage within three hours at a speed of 7.7 knots. it is 50 metres long and can carry 300 deadweight and will sail autonomously – without a crew but supervised from a remote operation centre.
Company executives associated with the project indicate that these small vessels could be the heralds of more radical change.
Geir Håøy, CEO, Kongsberg, said, “We’re beginning to see a general shift away from the road transportation of goods, with its considerable carbon footprint, and towards clean, energy-efficient, short-sea freight transportation”.
Meanwhile, Tom Eystø, Managing Director, Massterly, commented: “the small, fully electric and energy-efficient cargo vessel will be designed for uncrewed operations. Massterly will operate the vessel from our Remote Operation Center. We find it very interesting that one of the world’s largest logistics providers, DB Schenker, is seeing the benefits of uncrewed, zero emissions shipping and we hope this project will inspire a larger volume of similar vessels”.
Shipping giant Wilhelmsen noted that the benefits of such vessels include zero emissions, faster and more efficient transport, and reduced traffic on the roads.
Meanwhile, trade media are reporting that an operational autonomous vessel is about to enter service next month on a short sea route between Dongjiakou and Qingdao, both in China. Reported both in Splash247 and in the Maritime Executive, it appears that the 5,000 deadweight, 300 TEU, 12 knot “Zhi Fei” will be deployed on an autonomous basis.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, NYK Group companies carried out a successful trial with a container ship equipped with autonomous navigation capability on a 790km round-trip along a highly-trafficked part of the Japanese coast.
Also in February this year, Mitsui OSK carried out a successful sea trial of autonomous sailing using a large commercial coastal car ferry from Tomakomai Port to Oarai Port. The vessel sailed autonomously for about 750km in 18 hours. This trial, followed on from an earlier, January 2022, trial of an autonomous coastal container ship from Tsuruga Port to Sakai Port, both in Japan. The purpose of both trials was to identify the differences and similarities between the two different unmanned ship types.
The most well known trial underway is the trial of the Yara Birkeland, by fertilizer producing company Yara International. The Yara Birkeland is a small, autonomous coastal electric box ship that is about go on, or is now on, a two year trial in Norway. It’s already had a symbolic maiden voyage.
But perhaps the most impressive autonomous commercial vessel sailing to date is the October 2021 epic voyage of the tug “Nellie Bly” which sailed through the Kiel Canal and around Denmark – that’s over 1,000 nautical miles – in 129 operational hours. It was unmanned (but supervised by mariners in a remote control station… in the United States!) and it sailed autonomously for 96.9% of the time, executing 31 collision avoidance and traffic separation movements. It was also powered by renewable biofuel, which reduced emissions by about 90%.