Automated technology group ABB says it has successfully navigated an electric ferry via remote control from Helsinki to Suomenlinna fortress, about 20 minutes by boat from the Finnish capital.
In what ABB says is a world first for autonomous passenger ferries, the trial has demonstrated the potential for operating sea-going vessels without the need for an on-board human operator.
ABB is hopeful that the successful trial of the remote-controlled ferry, which is fitted out with ABB’s specially designed Azipod electric propulsion system that also has extraordinary ice-breaking capabilities, will further encourage acceptance of autonomous operations in the international shipping industry.
“We are excited about the potential impact of this test on the future of the maritime industry,” said Peter Terwiesch, the President of ABB’s Industrial Automation division in a statement.
“Advanced automation solutions from ABB are making the previously impossible possible for a wide range of sectors, including shipping, which is actively searching for technologies that can rapidly deliver more efficiency and better safety.”
Juha Koskela, Managing Director at ABB’s Marine & Ports unit was keen to emphasise that autonomous does necessarily mean unmanned.
“As vessels become more electric, digital and connected than ever before, ABB is able to equip seafarers with existing solutions that augment their skillsets. In this way, we are enhancing the overall safety of marine operations,” he said in a statement.
The autonomous electric ferry trial was conducted outside normal operating hours and without passengers on board, with the ship’s captain Lasse Heinonen conducting the remote operations from Helsinki harbour using ABB’s Marine Pilot Control system.
After conducting the voyage, Captain Lasse Heinonen said in a statement that, “The progress we have made with the remote trial has been remarkable. I believe we are on the right track to exploring further possibilities of this technology as we move forward.”
The Azipod electric propulsion system itself is nothing new for ABB, having been deployed on a number of vessels from cruise ships, icebreakers and ice-going cargo vessels, to mega-yachts, research vessels and even drilling rigs since 1990.
The electric propulsion system, which allows the under-ship propellors to turn 360 degrees allowing greater maneuverability, transformed the shipping industry, reducing fuel consumption by up to 20% – as of May 2016 the entire Azipod fleet had saved over 700,000 tons of fuel, according to ABB.
Finland is proving a favourite location for testing of autonomous shipping technologies.
Just this week, another ferry was deployed off Finland’s Turku archipelago, under full autonomous control in a demonstration conducted under a collaboration between Rolls Royce and state-owned Finferries.
With 400 hours of autonomous sea travel conducted so far in the tests, the 53.8 metre car ferry has been using a combination of Rolls-Royce Ship Intelligence technologies to operate autonomously between Finland’s Parainen and Nauvo.
Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She specialises in writing about new technology and has been writing about electric vehicles for two years. She has a keen interest in the role that zero emissions transport has to play in sustainability and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum.