Trucks are essential to commerce. Virtually every item purchased in stores is transported by truck at some point. Trucks add to urban congestion and clog highways. Worst of all, the vast majority of them are powered by diesel engines that pump millions of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere every year. Norway is experimenting with a new way to get some of those trucks off the road and reduce diesel emissions — autonomous electric ships.
The Norwegian Forum For Autonomous Ships is a partnership between the Norwegian Maritime Authority and the Norwegian Coastal Admininistration established in September of 2016. Its mission is to “facilitate the testing of fully or partly unmanned vessels and to exchange experience and data to facilitate the development and use of such vehicles.” The NFAS has established the Trondheim Fjord in Norway as a testing zone for autonomous ships. It has also established another testing zone in Greenland.
“We do not yet know how widespread autonomy will be in future shipping, but for the Norwegian Maritime Authority, it is imperative to be a central participant in this development,” says Olav Akselsen, director general of shipping and navigation.
NFAS suggests that autonomous ships could lower transportation costs but it is not talking about large container ships. Instead, it foresees a new generation of smaller vessels that can navigate in shallower waters and use pier facilities that don’t require the enormous cranes used to load and unload containers in ports today. These new electric ships would not need any superstructure to accommodate a human crew. No galley, no sleeping quarters, no bridge, and no common areas all add up to smaller, lighter vessels. Ships that weigh less can use smaller engines and go further on a given quantity of fuel, whether that fuel is in the form of electrons or molecules.
Water is an important part of how people and goods get around in Norway, which has a large number of fjords, lakes, and rivers that have to be crossed either by bridges, tunnels, or ferries. Autonomous electric ships are viewed as ideal for Norway’s extensive coastal shipping network. The self guided ships would use either batteries or hydrogen fuel cells to power their propeller systems. The batteries would be recharged or the hydrogen replenished while the electric ships are in port in conjunction with the loading and unloading process.
The technology for guiding ships autonomously is already under development for self driving cars and will involve an array of cameras, short range radar and perhaps Lidar to provide the data needed to steer the ship safely. The self guided ships would always be under the ultimate control of shore based personnel. Once coastal use has been proven feasible, longer ocean voyages will be added to the testing protocol. In some scenarios, a convoy of small ships could traverse the open ocean together, with individual ships leaving the convoy to proceed on their own to ports along the way.
Source: Aftenposten Hat tip to Leif Hansen