Self-driving ships come in all sizes

Norwegian companies are designing autonomous sea vessels from drones to cargo ships

The Otter Unmanned Surface Vehicle on the water.

Photo: Maritime Robotics
An Otter Unmanned Surface Vehicle in its natural habitat.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Worldwide, the maritime industry is increasingly interested in ships that can sail without a crew. With no heed to the haunting literary recollection of the “Marie Celeste,”* the race for designing and building viable autonomous ships is on for two reasons. First, most accidents at sea and on inland waters result from human error, just as they do on land and in the air. Second, crewing ships is costly, particularly on longer voyages of weeks to months at sea. As in other sectors, shipping may become safer and less costly if computer technologies replace human activities.

With the world’s seventh-largest merchant fleet and being the world’s 12th-largest shipbuilder (Source: Economist Pocket World in Figures, 2017), Norway understandably is involved in the autonomous shipping development race. Norwegian agencies and companies are taking part on their own and in concert with their peers in other countries.

A concept illustration of the Yara Birkeland.

Photo: Yara
Concept illustration for the Yara Birkeland, Yara’s planned unmanned ship.

Most of Norway’s 50-some shipyards as well as newer maritime-oriented research and development organizations are involved in automating vessels, from the smallest to the largest. At the small end of the vessel size spectrum, Maritime Robotics (, a high-tech startup founded in 2005 in Trondheim, has developed and now markets unmanned surface vehicles (USVs). The newest of the USV family is the Otter, an easily deployable bathymetric system, small enough to be carried by a van or checked in as airline baggage and taken anywhere for seabed mapping and monitoring of sheltered waters. Currently at the large end of the size spectrum, the Yara Birkeland (, an autonomous container ship now being built is scheduled to enter service in 2018. The Yara Birkeland will sail between Yara’s main plant at Herøya and ports in Brevik and Larvik, carrying fertilizer and chemicals, in so doing saving 40,000 road trips a year by trucks on local highways.

Many of the technologies involved in automating ships already are in use, as in platform supply vessels (PSV), which are ships specifically designed for logistic support of offshore oil and gas platforms. A modern PSV has a dynamic positioning system that uses data from satellites and its own onboard sensors to hold position near a platform. Many PSVs have been designed and built in Norway. The EDT Jane (shown here), designed by Ulstein Design & Solutions of Ulsteinvik in Møre og Romsdal county, is an example.

The EDT Jane ship.

Photo: Ulstein Design & Solutions / Flying Focus
EDT Jane PSV (Designed by Ulstein in Norway, built by LaNaval shipyard, Seasto, Spain), at Amoco offshore platform in Netherlands coastal waters.

Norway has two significant forums dealing with autonomous ships. At the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, the Center for Autonomous Marine Operations (AMOS) contributes fundamental and interdisciplinary know-how in marine hydrodynamics, ocean constructions, and control theory ( The Norwegian Forum for Autonomous Ships (NFAS) is a sector interest group founded by the Norwegian Maritime Administration, the Norwegian Coastal Administration, the Federation of Norwegian Industries, and the SINTEF Ocean research laboratory (

At the international EU level, Norway took part in the MUNIN concept study for unmanned bulk ships of 2012-2015 ( and now is involved in ENABLE S3, an industry-driven study of the commercialization of highly automated cyber physical systems (

*“The Marie Celeste” is a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in London by Cornhill Magazine in January 1884 and reprinted in the Boston Herald April 3, 1885. It is a fictionalized version of the real-life mystery of the Mary Celeste, an American brigantine found December 5, 1872, deserted and adrift in the Atlantic off the Azores Islands.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and with time turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 6, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.