Norwegian chemical and fertilizer producer Yara International has announced plans for the first all-electric, autonomous container ship.

It is being developed in partnership with digital technology group, Kongsberg, and will ship products from Yara's Porsgrunn production plant to Brevik and Larvik in Norway.

Named Yara Birkeland after the Norwegian scientist, Kristian Birkeland, it will initially operate as a manned vessel when it is delivered in late 2018, moving to remote operation in 2019. By 2020 it is will be capable of performing fully autonomous operations, said the two companies.

“The new zero-emission vessel will be a game-changer for global maritime transport, contributing to meet the UN sustainability goals,” said Yara in a statement.

The company said the vessel would replace 40,000 diesel-powered truck journeys a year.

"Every day, more than 100 diesel truck journeys are needed to transport products from Yara's Porsgrunn plant to ports in Brevik and Larvik where we ship products to customers around the world,” said Svein Tore Holsether, president and CEO of Yara.

“With this new autonomous battery-driven container vessel, we move transport from road to sea and thereby reduce noise and dust emissions, improve the safety of local roads, and reduce NOx and CO2 emissions.”

Kongsberg is responsible for development and delivery of all the key enabling technologies on the Yara Birkeland, including the sensors and integration required for remote and autonomous operation in addition to the electric drive, battery and propulsion control systems.

The 100-150 TEU vessel will sail within 12 nautical miles of the coast, between the three ports in southern Norway.

In March, meanwhile, engine and aerospace specialist, Rolls-Royce and MacGregor, part of Cargotec, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to collaborate on research and development to explore the impact of developments in autonomy for cargo ship navigation and cargo handling systems on container ships.

The collaboration is intended to lay the groundwork for the development of autonomous container ships, according to the companies.

“Rolls-Royce is pioneering remotely controlled and autonomous ships and believes such a remote-controlled ship will be in commercial use by the end of the decade and a common sight on the high seas by 2030,” said Asbjørn Skaro, director digital and systems at Rolls-Royce.

“For the full benefits of such a change to be realised, many activities currently done today manually will need to be done autonomously. This research will help us explore how that might be achieved,” added Skaro.