Autonomous electric water transport could be the answer to improving accessibility, achieving carbon neutrality, and addressing a shortage of skippers in the Helsinki archipelago. However, current legislation is a barrier to the operation of remotely controlled boats.
Over the years, Forum Virium Helsinki, the innovation agency of the City of Helsinki, has accelerated various business ideas through its rapid innovation experiments.
Autonomous transportation on water is also technically feasible, as demonstrated by the Callboats company's water taxi experiments. Callboats' electric water taxis can be ordered via a mobile app, similar to how Uber and Bolt provide car rides.
Callboats is the world's first commercial operator to offer an autonomous water taxi service. However, due to current regulations, they are not yet permitted to operate autonomously and must have at least one crew member on board.
Remote Work for Skippers – Affordable and Carbon-Neutral Island Transport for Passengers
The Callboats app allows passengers to request rides, such as trips to a friend's island cabin party or nature excursions with children from Helsinki's city center to remote islands with no other transportation options.
Last summer, the City of Helsinki selected Callboats to operate its first regular service to Eastern Helsinki's Kotiluoto, Northern Villaluoto, and Malkasaari islands. However, the price of a trip with a captain could exceed 50 euros. There is also a significant shortage of captains.
"Up to 60–70% of the costs of archipelago transportation come from paying captains. With autonomy, one captain could operate five water taxis, resulting in more profitable margins during short seasons and lower prices for consumers," said Peter Ostberg, CEO of Callboats.
Helsinki aims to improve accessibility to its archipelago and promote emissions-free maritime transport as part of the city's maritime strategy.
Forum Virium Helsinki, the City of Helsinki's innovation agency, has been involved in practical piloting of autonomous water taxis since 2020. According to Pekka Koponen, Senior Specialist at Forum Virium Helsinki, an autonomous water taxi system is an important innovation that could significantly improve access to the archipelago.
"Autonomous water taxis would be more agile, environmentally friendly, and much more cost-effective for travel to small islands compared to ferry services," Koponen said.
"In order to achieve Helsinki's carbon neutrality goals in public water transport, the propulsion of the fleet needs to change. Transitioning to autonomous boats would reduce costs and enable investments in new vessels. Helsinki's water buses are currently 50–60 years old, so fleet replacement is expected in the near future."
Autonomous Water Transport: Potentially Safer Than Human-Operated
Studies have shown that up to 80–90% of maritime accidents can result from human error. Autonomous water taxis are equipped with various safety systems, including sensors, cameras, and artificial intelligence, which together provide a more comprehensive view than the human eye.
Callboats' autonomous water taxi's aluminum gangway attaches to the pier more securely, reducing the risk of accidents compared to traditional rope mooring.
"It is often forgotten that elevators used to have operators until it was learned that autonomous rides were just as safe. Remote captains have better visibility than those on-site. The Callboats water taxi has a large camera on its roof and the captain has a large screen," Ostberg explained.
Could Finland Become a Pioneer in Autonomous Boating?
Norway is often hailed as a pioneer in autonomous maritime transport. The country has tested self-driving ferries in its fjords, and in 2021, Norway launched the world's first autonomous cargo ship.
Finland conducted its first test of autonomy in public water transport in 2018 when the state-owned company, Finferries, successfully operated the world's first autonomous ferry voyage from Parainen to Nauvo. The University of Turku's non-commercial autonomous robot boat's self-navigation is scheduled to be tested in the summer of 2024.
"Autonomous water taxis could also enhance the appeal of Helsinki's archipelago for tourists," added Peter Ostberg.