Autonomous electric boat transport could be the answer to making the Helsinki’s 300 islands more accessible, turning water transport carbon-neutral and solving the shortage of captains, but current legislation prevents remotely controlled boats from operating.

The agile pilots of Forum Virium Helsinki, the City of Helsinki’s innovation company, have boosted various business ideas over the years. In smart mobility, the most successful projects have been the innovations in autonomous mobility, such as a robot busdrones that transport emergency medical equipment to hard to reach places and a street sweeping robot.

Autonomous water transport would be technically possible as well, as the pilot project of the Callboats company has shown. The on-demand boats by Callboats are electric vessels that can be called via a mobile app, similar to car trips via Uber.

Callboats is the world’s first autonomous solution for on-demand boats by a commercial operator. However, the current legislation in Finland does not yet allow them to operate autonomously, since at least one crew member must be on board.

Remote work for captains – Inexpensive and carbon-neutral trips in the archipelago for passengers

With the Callboats app, passengers can book transport to their friend’s summer house on an island or take their children living in the city central to a nature trip on an otherwise inaccessible island.

For last summer, the City of Helsinki selected Callboats to operate the first regular route to the islands of Kotiluoto, North Villaluoto and Malkasaari in East Helsinki. However, with a captain, a boat trip could cost over 50 euros. There is also a dire shortage of captains.

“As much as 60–70% of the costs of archipelago transport come from the captains’ wages. Thanks to the autonomous operation, one captain could operate five callboats, which would offer more profit within the short season and lower prices for consumers,” Managing Director Peter Ostberg from Mente Maritine (Callboats) said.

Helsinki aims to promote the accessibility of its archipelago and reduce emissions from water transport as a part of the City’s maritime strategy.

Forum Virium Helsinki, the City of Helsinki’s innovation company, has participated in co-creation pilots on on-demand boats since 2020. According to Senior advisor in Smart Mobility Pekka Koponen from Forum Virium, a system of autonomous on-demand boats is an important innovation that can significantly improve the accessibility of the archipelago.

“Autonomous on-demand boats would be a more agile, eco-friendly and cost-efficient way of transporting passengers to small islands, compared to ferry transport,” Koponen said. “To achieve Helsinki’s carbon neutrality goal in public water transport, the fleet must start using a different motive power. Moving to autonomous boats would reduce costs and allow for investments in new electric boats. Helsinki water buses are 50–60 years old, on average, and will need to be replaced in the near future.”

Autonomous maritime mobility safer than human-navigated transport

Studies show that as many as 80–90% of accidents at sea may be due to human error. Autonomous on-demand boats are safe because they are equipped with various safety systems. Together, sensors, cameras and artificial intelligence can create an even more accurate situational picture than the human eye can.

The aluminium drawbridge of a Callboat attaches to the pier so securely that the risk of accidents is lower than in conventional attachment with ropes.

“It’s often forgotten that even lifts used to have human operators until we learned that autonomous operation is just as safe. The captains who control the boat remotely have better visibility than they would aboard the boat. There is a large camera on top of the callboat, and the captain observes the sea on a large screen,” Ostberg says.

Finland to become a pioneer in autonomous boats?

Norway is often called the pioneer in autonomous seafaring. Self-navigating ferries have been tested in the fjords, and in 2021, the first autonomous carrier ship was launched in Norway.

In Finland, autonomous water transport was tested in public transport for the first time in 2018 when government-owned Finferries successfully took an autonomous ferry trip from Parainen to Nauvo in Finland’s southwestern archipelago. The plan is to test the autonomous navigation of the word’s first non-commercial robot boat, developed by Turku University of Applied Sciences, in summer 2024.

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