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Turku envisions driverless smart ferry

The city's light traffic ferry has shuttled passengers across Aura River since 1903, but may one day do it autonomously.

Havainnekuva Turun Aurajokeen kaavailtavasta älyföristä.
A rendering of what Turku's future light traffic, autonomous ferry could look like someday. Image: Northern Works

The city of Turku - Finland's former capital on the southwest coast - is growing and wants to connect the two sides of the water-divided town further downriver than it does today. But constructing new bridges and tunnels have been deemed too challenging and costly.

Turku's light traffic ferry, Föri, has slowly taken pedestrians and cyclists back and forth across the Aura River for more than a century, since 1903.

The types of vessels that have traversed the roughly 75-metre crossing under the Föri moniker have changed over the decades - most recently with the addition of a more eco-friendly electric-powered engine - but have always had humans controlling them.

Due to larger boats on the river, any new bridge in that area would need to be excessively tall, especially since the planned crossing would be next to the city's historic, 700-year-old Turku Castle.

Digging a tunnel would also cost much more than the city appears to be prepared to pay.

Instead, the city is considering simply using a ferry, but one designed for the 21st century. To save the city on personnel costs, such a vessel would be autonomous and driverless.

Story continues after photo.

Kaupunkilautta Föri jäiden keskellä
Variations of the current light traffic ferry have crossed the Aura River since 1903. The current model was retrofitted with an electric motor a couple of years ago. Image: Päivi Leppänen / Yle

There are several challenges to creating a so-called "Smart-Ferry," however. According to Mari Salokorpi from the Aboa Mare Maritime Academy and Training Center, the biggest challenge is ensuring it won't become a hazard to other boats on the river, she said, adding that fire hazards are also issues that must be addressed.

Also, there are no laws regarding autonomous vehicles on the books - at least not yet, Salokorpi said.

The city has set aside about 400,000 euros in funding for the Smart and Wise Turku project during 2020-21. Part of that effort is devoted to figuring out if updating and moving Föri down the river is feasible.

In the meantime, starting next autumn, the current iteration of Föri will be outfitted with electronic sensors to collect data. That information will help to create algorithms to make sure the possible autonomous ferry will "know" when it is safe to cross.

The sensors will be scanning the ferry's path over the next two winters. Winter conditions place particularly heavy demands on navigation of the ferry. The vessel also needs to be able to operate even if there's ice cover on the river, and snow and sleet can also pose problems for the sensors.

The city's project manager, Jakke Mäkelä, said that the sensors will record everything in the ferry's path, including other vessels as well as wildlife and even people.

"We might ask someone to swim or canoe near Föri when we're collecting data," Mäkelä said.

He pointed out that it's important that the ferry knows what kinds of objects and situations it should react to, as well as what it shouldn't.

"That's something we simply need to decide on," he said.

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