Inside the Falco, the car ferry with artificial intelligence at the helm

Professional Engineering

The Falco during the world's first autonomous ferry crossing (Credit: Rolls-Royce)
The Falco during the world's first autonomous ferry crossing (Credit: Rolls-Royce)

When the Falco car ferry set sail off the coast of Finland on 3 December last year, its captain was 50km away – and not in control.

Instead, the 54m-long vessel followed a winding route and dodged obstacles while running fully autonomously – it was the world’s first autonomous ferry crossing. 

The Safer Vessel with Autonomous Navigation (Svan) project is a collaboration between Rolls-Royce and state-owned Finnish company Finferries. Rolls-Royce believes marine autonomy could reduce costs thanks to lower staffing levels and efficient fuel consumption. It could also increase journey safety, reducing human error from factors such as crew fatigue. 

Obstacle course

Short-range radar, day- and night-vision cameras and lidar were added to the Falco for the Svan project. An “intelligent awareness system” combines data from the sensors to produce a picture of the vessel’s surroundings to enable it to pass potential obstacles. The ferry completed almost 400 hours of sea trials before the December demonstration. 

Shared responsibilities

For the voyage’s return leg, the captain remotely controlled the Falco from land. Humans will always work with autonomous marine systems, says Rolls-Royce vice-president Oskar Levander, and will need to take over in port. 

Some vessels, such as cruise ships, will always have crews to deal with potential human emergencies, says Levander, but he thinks autonomy will gradually become mandatory to improve safety. “We won’t allow ships without it, in the same way that we don’t allow ships without radar.”

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily reflect the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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