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Norway pioneered electric ferries. Now startup Zeabuz is making them self-driving

(CNN) – With medieval origins and a picturesque, colorful harbor, the Norwegian flat town of Trondheim doesn’t seem very futuristic. But the former Viking capital is making waves with a pioneering transport initiative: an emission-free, self-driving electric ferry.

The small, autonomous ferry, which launches next year, works “like an elevator,” says Erik Dyrkoren, CEO of Zeabuz, the company that builds and operates the boat.

Passengers on either side of the canal separating the port and city center can call the boat to their side with the push of a button. The boat charges while waiting at the dock, can accommodate up to 12 passengers and bikes, and takes less than 60 seconds to make the crossing. This saves pedestrians a 15-minute walk.

The ferry was developed in 2018 by researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) as an alternative to a planned bridge over the Trondheim port canal. The prototype was a hit and NTNU commercialized its research, launching Zeabuz in 2019. He is part of a larger movement exploring how to use waterways for more sustainable transport.

Revitalization of urban waterways

Around the globe, more and more cities are turning to waterways for public transport. Bangkok plans to have 30 new electric ferries and 5,000 electric water taxis up and running by next year. New York’s ferry system is being expanded to all five boroughs. and in July, Uber announced it was launching boat taxis along the Thames in London. This is a great way to optimize the available space, says Susanna Hall Kihl, an expert in water transportation and founder of Vattenbussen, a research and advocacy group for urban waterways.

“Historically, we have traveled that way,” emphasizes Kihl, saying that most large cities were built on or near water. The revitalization of inadequately used waterways to relieve traffic jams is a simple solution, as only a minimal infrastructure is required compared to other transport systems.

This is one of the reasons Trondheim wants to support ferry traffic, says Bård Eidet, Head of Business Development for Trondheim Municipality. With numerous coastal communities, he says, boating in Norway has cultural significance. “Waterways have always been an important means of transportation, but they lost ground as cars became more important,” he says.

Norway is a leader in electric ferries. The company launched the world’s first electric passenger and car ferry in Sognefjord in 2015 and pioneered “new technologies and green fuels,” says Narve Mjøs, director of DNV GL, advisor to the maritime industry and organizer of the Norwegian Green Shipping program.

Autonomous boats like Zeabuz are the next step. They offer an alternative to land transport and make ferries more energy and cost-effective, says Mjøs. Automation also improves operational efficiency, he says. Less energy is used and there is more space for passengers without a crew or driver.

Roboat is a five year project to develop autonomous ferries for Amsterdam canals.

© MIT / AMS Institute

Companies like Reaktor in Finland, SeaBubbles in France and Roboat in the Netherlands are also testing the waters with autonomous ferries, hoping to entice passengers to opt for water transport over land.

“Child’s play” security systems

Well-established legislation regulates the safety of conventional passenger ships. However, most countries have not yet introduced new regulations for self-propelled ferries – and this is an obstacle to expansion.

Kihl said it will be easier to develop regulations in places where “decision-making is centralized”, but pioneer countries can help set an example. She adds that connecting ferries to existing public transport networks is another important aspect that has a direct impact on their adoption and usefulness. “We actually have to build that into the city,” she says.

The first prototype for Trondheim's self-propelled ferry was developed by NTNU and is called Milliampere

The first prototype for Trondheim’s self-propelled ferry was developed by NTNU and is called Milliampere, which means “little electric”.

NTNU

Without a captain and crew, which are required by current Norwegian safety regulations for larger boats, Zeabuz operations are limited to 12 passengers. Dyrkoren says this will have to change before the company can scale, but he is confident that the “close collaboration between regulators and the research community” in Norway will help get lawmakers on board soon.

Zeabuz is currently investigating security protocols that tie into existing emergency services, and Dyrkoren says the team is working to make the technology and security systems “foolproof”. Zeabuz ferries use cameras with sensors to look for obstacles, while a navigation system – similar to submarines and airplanes – monitors the speed and position of the boat. The data is transmitted via 5G to a control center that is manned by a person who would call for help in an emergency.

Dyrkoren emphasizes that “there will always be a human individual” overseeing self-propelled ferries. “Complete autonomy, where you leave the machines to their own devices, is not a scenario anyone is talking about.”

A free ride

The ferry will operate as a free public service, says Eidet, adding that the project is very enthusiastic.

Other Norwegian cities like Tønsberg, Sandefjord and Haugesund have expressed an interest in Zeabuz’s boats, Dyrkoren says, and he believes larger metropolitan areas like London, Hamburg and Paris could benefit from self-driving ferries.

According to Zeabuz, the self-propelled ferry will be given a sleek, modern aesthetic in line with advanced technology over the next five years.

According to Zeabuz, the self-propelled ferry will be given a sleek, modern aesthetic in line with advanced technology over the next five years.

Zeabuz

He envisions some cities offering the ferries as a free public service to reduce road traffic and encourage pedestrians, while others might view this as a monetization opportunity

Either way: “It’s fun to get around the city and it’s very much geared towards future mobility,” says Dyrkoren. “It will be attractive to cities as they develop.”

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