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Autonomous passenger ferries: Congestion-buster or hype on the high seas?

The world’s first autonomous passenger ferry demonstration took place off the coast of Finland last month. Are we set to see such services scale up?


Riding on Sydney’s passenger ferries is a must for any visitor and I was no different.


The soothing oscillations and waterborne views of the world’s largest natural harbour can lift anyone’s spirits. You can easily lose a day cruising from wharf to wharf, stopping off for the occasional coffee, fish and chips or ice cream – it has to be pistachio, doesn’t it?


Sydney’s ferries are much more than just a tourist attraction, though – they make up a significant part of the city’s multi-modal transport system. Avoiding the congested streets is a real draw, especially for commuters.


Urban ferry systems are enjoying something of a revival elsewhere too.


Blue highways


The ferry industry packs a global punch. ‘Blue highways’ transport 2.1 billion passengers per year. By comparison, commercial airlines carry 2.3 billion.


Sydney’s 32-vessel service carries 16 million passengers a year. This is more than ferries in London (10 million) and New York (3 million), although less than Istanbul (108 million) and Hong Kong (47 million).

Annual ferry ridership 2017 (millions)
Annual ferry ridership 2017 (millions)


"We’re going to need bigger boats” quipped New York’s Mayor, Bill de Blasio, in 2018, as he announced a further $300 million of investment in the Big Apple’s ferry system (now totalling $690 million) after expectation-busting early success for the new service, which was launched last year.


San Francisco’s ferry patronage has grown 74 per cent in the last five years and is predicted to increase by up to 900 per cent by 2035. London’s ridership is predicted to reach 20 million by 2035 – double the amount today.


Sydney’s passenger numbers have been growing too, with a steady rise over recent years. The system has recently expanded, with six new ferries and extra routes added in 2017, as well as calls for further additions.


Cruising towards autonomy


Autonomous ferries are now a real prospect. Cities such as Helsinki, Hong Kong or Sydney could be the poster child for the ferry industry, helping to accelerate the global roll-out of autonomous ferries.


Rolls-Royce Commercial Marine is leading the race in developing autonomous shipping technology. Last month, the company, in collaboration with FinFerries, demonstrated the world’s first autonomous passenger ferry. The demonstration took place in the Turko Archipelago, Finland, as part of the Safer Vessel Autonomous Navigation (SVAN) project. Eighty VIP guests travelled aboard.


The ferry successfully navigated three vessels in its path, including one moving across its trajectory.



“Our autonomous system can turn night into day."


The system comprises the same sensor and AI (artificial intelligence) technology that is being used in autonomous vehicles.


“Our autonomous system can turn night into day”, Iiro Lindborg, VP Remote and Autonomous Solutions at Rolls-Royce, said in an interview.


Falco Rolls-Royce and FinFerries' autonomous passenger ferry
Falco Rolls-Royce and FinFerries' autonomous passenger ferry

Rolls Royce’s key competitor was Kongsberg, before Kongsberg reached agreement to acquire Rolls Royce Commercial Marine in 2018.


Kongsberg and Yara plan to launch a fully electric autonomous container feeder vessel, the Yara Birkeland, in Norway in 2022 to transport fertiliser.


Samsung Heavy Industries and two US start-ups, Shone and Sea Machine Robotics, have announced they are developing autonomous shipping systems too.


Further, much smaller Autonomous Surface Vessels (USVs), like Singapore’s sea robots which are used for surveillance by the coastguard, have been trialled in recent years.


The Port of Rotterdam is on course for autonomous cargo vessels to be operating by 2030.


The maritime sector could be a neat pivot option for autonomous vehicle companies.


The maritime sector could be a neat pivot option for autonomous vehicle companies, given the crowded marketplace. After all, the global commercial maritime freight market alone is worth $208 billion per year and growing. You can just imagine the dollar signs in the eyes of investors and co-founders alike, and Toyota has just announced an investment in Sea Machine Robotics.


Business case


The business case for autonomous cars rests largely on the reduction in traffic accidents, more productive use of driver/passenger time and increased network capacity. Can the same be said for ferries?


A more productive use of passenger time doesn’t really apply to ferries, since most ferry users are already free to use their travelling time as they wish but there are still plenty of potential benefits, including:

  • Reduction in crew and therefore salary costs (up to 30 per cent of operational expenses can be crew-related)
  • Increased safety, especially in poor visibility conditions (e.g. night time operations or hazardous weather)
  • Better network optimisation, increasing system capacity and reducing delays
  • More efficient ship design, reducing ship building costs
  • Fuel efficiency from optimised trajectory and power control reducing environmental impact and running costs.


Let’s look at some of these benefits in more detail:




Approximately 1,500 people die in ferry accidents across the globe each year – the majority in the developing world. According to a study by the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association, human error is a factor in 70 per cent of accidents, with the weather a factor in 50 per cent.


Although the number of road traffic deaths is much greater at 1.3 million worldwide annually per passenger mile, travelling by ferry is half as deadly as travelling by car – and at least seven times more deadly than other modes of public transport. This is according to a Northwestern University study in the US from 2000-2009.

Passenger deaths 2000-2009
Passenger deaths 2000-2009


There have been eight accidents involving Sydney ferries since 2004, with five fatalities recorded. Four fatalities occurred in 2007, when the Pam Burridge ferry collided with the Merinda motor cruiser carrying 12 people. This collision occurred at night and the safety investigation found that the Merinda was not exhibiting the correct navigational lights and therefore could not be easily seen by crew on the Pam Burridge.


An autonomous ferry could help to avoid such future disasters.




The potential savings in operating costs could be used to reduce subsidies, purchase new ferries and launch new services. Ultra-regular commuter services could achieve modal shift, improving air quality and easing congestion.


A network of connected and cooperative autonomous ferries could help to optimise operations, unlocking extra capacity and enabling reliable journey times.


It’s also likely that newly built autonomous ships will be electric and therefore reduce environmental impact further, although retrofitting diesel-powered ships could be more common at first.





Of course, there are risks too. The potential downsides of autonomous ferries include:


  • Loss of crew jobs and associated livelihoods
  • Increased risk of accidents in testing phases
  • Need for investment for demonstration, pilot and commercialisation phases
  • Additional software, hardware (including sensors) and connectivity requirements for ships, including cybersecurity


Iiro points out that there is currently a skills gap for seamen, dubbed the ‘silver tsunami’. A worldwide shortage of 148,000 ship and deck officers is predicted by 2025.


Australian maritime authorities are also reporting a worsening skills shortage – especially for captains of smaller commercial vessels, like Sydney’s passenger ferries. The cost/time to achieve qualifications and an ageing/retiring workforce are the top two reasons for this.


Autonomy could go some way to addressing the maritime skills gap.




During the transition to full autonomy, sensor information could be used to provide more intelligent awareness to crew, improving efficiency and safety. Existing human-based navigation skills could be deployed to wirelessly control ships from on-shore remote-control centres, taking over from autonomous systems when required. One captain could oversee multiple ships, as well as helping to train AI algorithms. In addition, new digital roles could be generated across the sector.


Steve Hamilton, Senior Maritime Adviser, Nova Systems Australia (which provides engineering and management services) explained: “We need to download the experiential knowledge from mariners to autonomous systems before they retire, especially decision-making during abnormal conditions. Handling a ship is complex, there are eight vectors at play. Imagine trying to drive a car on a persistently moving road.”


"We need to download the experiential knowledge from mariners to autonomous systems before they retire, especially decision-making during abnormal conditions."


Ultimately, all navigational tasks could be automated, leaving only customer experience and mechanical-based roles remaining – that is, until the robots arrive.


A back-of-the-fish-and-chip wrapper analysis of the business case seems to point towards plugging a serious skills gap, reducing operational costs and increasing safety.


More work is needed, though...another cod and chips please!


Next steps


A good place to begin the roll-out of autonomous ferries could be on domestic waters – e.g. New York’s waterways or Sydney’s harbour. It’s a lot easier to amend/grant exemption to regulation to allow autonomy when there’s one authority involved, as opposed to 174 in the UN’s International Maritime Organisation, which governs cross-border shipping.


Domestic passenger ferries or freight vessels like the Yara Birkeland are the stepping stones to wider global deployment. The technological, practical and regulatory learnings from autonomous passenger ferry demonstrators can be transferred to freight vessels and vice versa.


The next steps for a city that wants to lead in this space could be to flesh out the business case, identifying short, simple and regular routes that can be used to demonstrate innovation.


We have seen this approach used for testing autonomous vehicle technology in recent years, with simple shuttles the first to be demonstrated – such as Nayva’s shuttle in Bordeaux in 2015.


Early discussions with the relevant regulator about gaining exemptions for the demonstration are key, as is identifying potential operators up for the challenge.



The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) is currently mapping out a short, medium and longer-term approach to the regulation of autonomous domestic commercial vessels. The Australian Navy demonstrated smaller autonomous vessels in Jervis Bay, south of Sydney, in 2018.


Cities around the world are likely to be vying to launch the first commercial autonomous services over the coming years, although grand visions have yet to be announced.


The world’s great cities are likely to be vying to launch the first commercial autonomous services over the coming years.


Turko and its archipelago appears to be in the lead right now, given the Rolls-Royce Marine and FinFerries demo. Helsinki is up there too, after achieving a step on the voyage to automation with its remote-controlled ferry demonstration in 2018.


With Sydney’s new franchise beginning services in 2019 and new funding announced for New York’s ferry system, 2019 could be a great opportunity for those cities to kick off an initiative to put them at the forefront.


Will it be Turko, Helsinki, Sydney or someone else who gets there first? It’s going to be fascinating.


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