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What will be happening before the Yara Birkeland becomes an autonomous container ship out of Herøya

NAVIGATE AUTOMATICALLY: “If everything goes according to plan, the Yara Birkeland will navigate automatically between the Yara fertiliser terminal at Herøya, to Brevik and Larvik port terminals from 2022,” says Ketil Olaf Paulsen, Director of Technology at Kongsberg Maritime.

As of 2020, the Yara Birkeland – a container ship – will be a common site between Herøya Industrial Park and the ports of Brevik and Larvik, and from 2022 the container ship may be autonomous.

Ketil Olaf Paulsen of Kongsberg Maritime is heading the project that is developing and testing the autonomous system for the Yara Birkeland. We asked him about the technology, what will be happening in future and how the Yara Birkeland will work in practice.

Secure in the technology

“We are starting to feel reasonably secure in the technology and the equipment. The autonomous system for which we are responsible will allow the container ship to sail from Herøya Industrial Park to other ports safely and correctly. That is why a lot is going on in parallel – this is a prerequisite if we are to achieve our objective,” says Paulsen.    

While Kongsberg Maritime is developing and testing technology, Yara is preparing itself for autonomous operations on land. Port terminals in Brevik and Larvik are looking at the consequences of bringing an unmanned ship into dock. Host Brevik is working on constructing the ship, while the Norwegian Maritime Authority and the Norwegian Coastal Administration are developing rules.

New driving rules

Starting to use new technology involves new driving rules. Paulsen as of the opinion that the greatest challenges the fact that there are no rules at present that indicate how this should work in practice.

“We are working closely with the Norwegian Coastal Administration and the traffic control centre in Brevik, and we hope they will have finished their work when we have finished ours. We have to be way over 100 per cent certain that everything works safely before we can proceed,” emphasises Paulsen.

“However, one fantastic thing about Norway is the fact that directorates and ministries are demonstrating such enormous goodwill now that we are wanting to test new technology like the Yara Birkeland at Herøya. Norway has a major advantage when new technology is to be developed and adapted,” reckons Paulsen.

Autonomous ferry services already being tested

Since the first Yara Birkeland model was  tested in a closed pool at Sintef Ocean in Trondheim in 2017, Kongsberg Maritime has begun testing in open maritime ferry traffic.

“At the moment, we are testing  systems developed together with Bastø Fosen AS that will automate the crossing between Horten and Moss. We have to bring ferries into and out of port on the busiest ferry route in Norway. The ferry is pretty similar to the Yara Birkeland in terms of size, so what will be happening at Herøya is much the same,” Paulsen.

“We are trying to extend our testing over time, and at the same time we are also testing smaller boats in Trondheim and Horten.

Using offshore technology

The technology being used by Kongsberg Maritime  and is based on existing products that the company has supplied for ships that operate in the North Sea, for example. One of these is Dynamic Positioning of ships, which will be used for platforms and other offshore installations.

“This technology allows ships to maintain their position or move in a specific pattern. The technology ensures that the engines run as intended, and that the ship navigates a given route on a map. We are employing this technology in the Yara Birkeland.

Sensor technology at sea

What is new?

“There are now sensors that make this possible – this is new. The automotive industry has brought down the cost level, and we are adapting this technology and making it possible to use it at sea. Information from the sensors allows the system to understand the situation around the ship and take it into account. We use GPS technology, radar, cameras and other sensor technology to ensure that the ship is capable of navigating to its destination and then docking.

“The management system that automates all ship operations is also new. This system is what will be taking over from the crew and ensuring that the ship is capable of understanding and navigating autonomously.”

Control centre on land

Ketil Olaf Paulsen explains that the new management system will communicate with a control centre on land. This is also new. 

“The Yara Birkeland will communicate with the centre, and if any problems occur – such as the ship failing to understand its surroundings, like a buoy or other obstacles – the operator on land can use cameras to see what it is and go in and override the system,” he explains.

Loading, unloading, routes and runs will be planned from the control centre. Most things will happen automatically, but the operator land will check that everything is working well. 

The new management system will also be communicating directly with existing digital systems at Kalmar, which handles containers on land, the Yara fertiliser terminal, the traffic control centre and ports. 

The operation in practice

The Yara Birkeland will transport fertiliser containers from Herøya Industrial Park to Brevik and Larvik, and one departure a day is planned.

How will this happen in practice? 

“The whole thing will begin with an order from Yara, which will send a number of containers of fertiliser to Brevik, for example, and the time at which the containers have to be received there. We will then plan how the containers are to be loaded aboard the ship, and the sequence – using the smallest number of resources possible. We will notify Kalmar, which is responsible for handling containers on land, and collects the containers and puts them in place.

“When the ship arrives, the containers will be ready to be loaded onto it. We will then notify the crane, which will start the loading operation. At the same time, we will have agreed and clarified the route with the traffic control centre and the Port of Brevik. The traffic control centre will approve this, and it may also recommend when and how departure would be best. Then we will complete the documentation required by the port in order to unload the ship and transport empty containers back.”

Phasing in over time

According to the plan, the ship will operate with a crew aboard initially. The crew are involved in all testing and can intervene if anything fails.

“We want to test everything, function by function, and be able to travel on simple routes without anyone having to pull on levers. When we are well over 100 per cent sure that everything on the ship is working, we will consult the Norwegian Maritime Authority and agree to proceed. We will also be working constantly on testing communication with the control centre.”

How frequently will the ship be operating?

“Initially, the Yara Birkeland will operate once a day. We are expecting to travel between Herøya and the port terminals of Brevik and Larvik in a day, and we are planning to travel at a speed of around eight knots. The time at which we sail will be assessed on the basis of when the port terminals are able to unload the ship and the time recommended by the traffic control centre, but we will also be assessing adaptation to the powerful Brevik current in order to save as much energy as possible,” explains Paulsen.

All Norwegian maritime industrial development from Herøya  

The Yara Birkeland is all Norwegian, you could say. Construction, testing and getting the world’s first autonomous container ship, with autonomous transport systems, to work in practice are all taking place in the industrial environment in Grenland and at Kongsberg and Herøya.

“The Yara Birkeland represents an important next step for the entire maritime industry and will help to develop sustainable maritime technology and transport systems.” 

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