Innovation on waves: Helsinki introduces autonomous water taxis

Callboats Autonomous Water Taxi Rooftop Solar Panels
Callboats' electric water taxis are equipped with solar panels on their rooftops. Images © Callboats

In an era dominated by the buzz of autonomous vehicles on roads, the waters are not far behind. Helsinki, the Finnish capital, witnesses the commencement of the world’s first autonomous water taxi service, thanks to Callboats. The innovative move aims to not only offer a novel transportation experience but also provide a solution to the prevailing captain shortage in the region.

Callboats’ venture began a year ago with the introduction of captained electric services accessible via a smartphone app. After successful trials, they have now shifted gears towards a more autonomous approach. However, the fascinating part is the involvement of remote captains. Instead of steering a single vessel, these captains will now oversee multiple boats simultaneously, managing exceptional scenarios that might arise during the journey.

Peter Ostberg, the CEO of Callboats, elucidated the financial benefits of this shift. He mentioned to the Helsinki Times that a significant 60-70% of the costs linked to archipelago transportation result from captain salaries. By integrating autonomy, not only can one captain operate multiple boats, but the resultant economy also trickles down to the consumer, presenting them with a more affordable transportation option.

Nevertheless, the current regulations still necessitate at least one crew member to be present on these autonomous water taxis. These self-piloted boats are armed with 360-degree cameras and sensors. These tech-tools allow the watercraft to monitor their surroundings, detect and steer clear of obstacles, navigate efficiently, and even autonomously deploy gangplanks during pickups and drop-offs.

Callboats Autonomous Water Taxi Gangplank
During pickups and drop-offs, the gangplank automatically adjusts itself to the correct height.

Now, diving into the technical details of the watercraft, these boats are designed to accommodate ten passengers. Powered by four 10-kW electric pod thrusters, they sail at a leisurely maximum speed of 9 knots (10 mph, 17 km/h). Their 60-kWh battery ensures approximately nine hours of voyage at a slightly reduced speed of 6 knots (7 mph, 11 km/h). To keep the boat green and sustainable, a 1.5-kW solar array adorns its roof, potentially charging the battery 8-10 kWh on sunny days. The remaining energy requirement is met via an 11 kW 3-phase charger.

Callboats Autonomous Water Taxi CAT 10 L
Using the Callboats app, customers can summon and pay for the boat, which seats up to 30 passengers and is overseen remotely by operators.

The service covers trips between Helsinki and the nearby islands of Kotiluoto, Villaluoto, and Malkasaari. These journeys are relatively short, each being a few miles per round. Callboats believes that this transition to autonomy will augment accessibility to these islands, emphasizing the existing dearth of captains inclined towards this monotonous task.

For those curious about the operation, an illustrative video showcasing an early version of the autonomous software on a smaller six-seater boat is available.

Source: Callboats