A potentially seminal development, the zero-emission Yara Birkeland. A potentially seminal development, the zero-emission Yara Birkeland.

The era of autonomous commercial shipping will move a step closer in 2020 with the launching of the coastal container carrier Yara Birkeland, writes David Tinsley.

The ambitious Norwegian endeavour, fostered by global fertiliser group Yara International and technology company Kongsberg Maritime, centres on a wholly battery-electric vessel that will initially be manned before moving to operation under remote control.

With main dimensions of 80m x 15m, and taking payloads of up to 120TEU containers on an open deck, Yara Birkeland will generate zero emissions while maintaining a shuttle-type service through Norway’s southern coastal waters.

The ship could be a game-changer for maritime transport, contributing to meeting UN sustainability goals as well as Norway’s environmental agenda. The environmental mindfulness that complements Yara’s strategy to enhance a crucial link in its logistic chain has produced a modal-shift solution devised to reduce the need for approximately 40,000 journeys per year by road transport, drastically cutting NOx and CO2 emissions.

Yara Birkeland will be deployed on short coastal routes, of seven and 30 nautical miles, respectively, transferring cargo from the production complex at Porsgrunn to Brevik and Larvik for transhipment. Distant markets, notably Asia and South America, are primary destinations for Yara’s products.

At a price of around NOK250 million (US$27.2m), far in excess of that of a comparable capacity conventional vessel, the ship construction contract was awarded in 2018 to the VARD Group, part of the Fincantieri organisation.

The hull is being built by VARD Braila in Romania, with system installation, outfitting and completion to take place at the west Norwegian premises of VARD Brevik. The lines are based on the MT207 design drawn up by Marin Teknikk.

With completion anticipated during the first half of 2020, transition from manned sailings to fully autonomous voyages is expected to have been realised before the end of 2022.

Kongsberg Maritime is responsible for supplying the vessel’s electric drive, batteries, and propulsion control system, and for all key enabling technologies relating to remote control and autonomous operation.

While it has gained substantially in product range and its pool of know-how through last April’s acquisition of the commercial marine business of Rolls-Royce, Kongsberg has expertise built up over decades in the development and integration of advanced sensors, control and communications across manifold marine applications. Its track record in autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and marine robots is especially apposite to the Yara project, which signifies a major upscaling of marine remote control.

Kongsberg has selected Leclanche to supply the 6.8MWh battery installation, the largest worldwide at the time of ordering. The system will be built up in Switzerland, with the cells manufactured at Leclanche’s Willstadt plant in Germany. Battery recharging will take place during ship loading and unloading, drawing electricity from the landside grid, generated by ‘clean’ hydro power.

Drive will be to a pair of azimuthing main propulsion units, and manoeuvring and berthing will be assisted by two bow thrusters. The outfit will be from Brunvoll, comprising the two pulling-type, azimuth thrusters of 900kW, incorporating 2.2m-diameter controllable pitch propellers, plus the two 700kW tunnel thrusters with 1.75m-diameter propellers.

An automatic mooring solution delivered by MacGregor will serve the vessel at the three port terminals embraced by the new shipping arrangements, and loading and discharge will similarly be accomplished automatically using electric cranes and other equipment.

The Norwegian Coastal Administration’s vessel traffic management system (VTMS) at Brevik will cover the ship’s entire, regular sailing pattern. Dedicated operating control centres are also to be set up at Yara’s Porsgrunn site and Kongsberg Maritime’s headquarters. These centres will handle condition monitoring, operational oversight, decision support, surveillance of the ship and its surroundings, emergency and exceptional situations, and all other aspects of safety.

The hand of the state is evident across-the-board in the range of initiatives being taken by the Norwegian maritime transport sector to reduce or curtail dependence on oil and other hydrocarbon fuels. The authorities’ willingness to help sponsor the industry’s technological advance demonstrates appreciation not only of the ecological imperatives but certainly also of the potential benefits to the economy and Norway’s international market standing by fostering innovation and cultivating new technological solutions and products.

To those ends, the project consortium behind the Yara Birkeland has been awarded NOK133.6 million (US$14.5m) in funding from the government agency ENOVA in 2018. ENOVA is tasked with promoting environmentally-friendly energy production and usage, and the funding was cleared by Norway’s Ministry of Climate and Environment.

The likely operator of Yara Birkeland is a new Kongsberg-Wilhelmsen joint venture company named Masterly, which was created to specialise in all aspects of autonomous shipping.



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