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Totally electric cargo ship sails silently -- and autonomously

The Yara Birkeland is the result of four years' development.

Yara Birkeland electric autonomous ship
Is this the future?

The Yara Birkeland could be the future of cargo vessels. The container ship runs on battery power, produces zero emissions and has no manned crew. This big boat sails autonomously with a crew monitoring its movements miles away. Now after four years of work, the Birkeland is ready for its maiden voyage, CNN first reported Wednesday.

According to the Norwegian company responsible for the ship's development, the goal is to shove off from the town of Herøya, and dock in Brevik. It won't be making any major oceanic voyages right away, but if all goes well, it will show the ship's capable of doing things similarly to today's fossil-fuel-burning cargo ships. Onboard the ship is 7 megawatt-hours' worth of energy from batteries, which gives the ship a top speed of 13 knots, or 15 mph. While it hums along, it can carry 103 containers in the process.

Although the ship sails without human help, it still requires humans to load and unload its contents. That's something Yara wants to change with future investments into autonomous cranes and other machines to also keep humans out of this process, too. Without human labor, this shipping method becomes more cost effective.

The progress made is impressive, but autonomous technologies remain in their infancy. Like self-driving cars, autonomous boats also need to navigate challenges such as obstacles, traffic and more. Replace a self-driving car prototype avoiding a cyclist with an autonomous shipping vessel staying away from other ships in port. But as the world races to decarbonize transportation sectors, cargo ships are a prime place to focus.

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