However, by the end of the year, the number of crew on board will be reduced from five to two and then, if all goes well, in two more years the vessel’s bridge will be removed and there won’t be any crew on board at all.
Until then, Captain Svend Ødegård is at the helm of the 80m-long ship. “We are taking big steps towards autonomy,” he tells the BBC. “There’s a lot of installed technology there, that is not on existing ships.”
Eventually the Yara Birkeland will navigate aided by sensors, including radar and cameras, which will feed data to an artificial intelligence, which will detect and classify waterborne obstacles.
“We have situational awareness – cameras on the side, front and stern of the ship,” the captain explains. “It can decide whether to change its path because something is in the way.”
The captain’s job will move onto dry-land, to a remote operation centre more than 80km (50 miles) away, where several ships could potentially be monitored at the same time. If necessary, humans will be able to intervene by sending commands to alter the speed and course.
Owned by fertiliser giant Yara, the Yara Birkeland has been sailing twice weekly for last several months from the firm’s enormous plant near Porsgrunn to the port of Brevik, carrying up to 100 containers and collecting data along the 13km (8 miles) route.
“Vessels which operate along short, regular and fixed routes offer good opportunities to introduce autonomous ship technologies,” says Sinikka Hartonen, Secretary General of One Sea Association, an alliance of maritime companies and experts working in autonomy.
The project’s technology provider, Kongsberg is working on another two battery-powered autonomous barges in the Oslo Fjord, with Norwegian grocery wholesaler Asko, and a fourth, small container ship, near Ålesund.
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