Electric, autonomous and efficient: sea busses can fill a vital niche

Waterborne public transit is a natural solution for cities built around rivers, lakes and harbours. Add electricity and autonomy to the picture and you have Zeabuz, an on-demand aquatic bus system designed for operation on compact urban routes.

“Short-travel ferries will likely be the first application of autonomy in marine passenger transportation,” says Erik Dyrkoren, CEO of Zeabuz. “These systems are suited for most major cities that are built around navigable bodies of water, and that means most major cities in the world.”

Zeabuz concept model
Zeabuz concept model

Zeabuz is the latest marine transport innovation to come out of Norway. Blessed with the world’s second-longest coastline, Norwegians have a history of seeking solutions from the sea. But according to Dyrkoren, their fondness of advanced maritime technology is the main reason so many leading-edge initiatives are emerging from this long and narrow Nordic land.

“Norway is a very good place for developing autonomous marine systems right now,” he says. “History, geography, public policies, technology, and competence are all converging.”

Clean and simple

Electric power, autonomous charging and simplicity of operations are all essential components in the future success of Zeabuz, Dyrkoren claims. “Robust propulsion will be a central factor. Electric propulsion is the most dependable and requires the least intervention, and it will also help reduce emissions in the urban environment.” In addition, a high degree of autonomy will improve efficiency and help make the system more easily accessible to the public, he says.

Electric power, autonomous charging and simplicity of operations are all essential components of Zeabuz
Electric power, autonomous charging and simplicity of operations are all essential components of Zeabuz

Dyrkoren explains that Zeabuz will function much like an elevator in a building, with pre-set stops and on-demand service. The challenge lies in translating the constraints of elevator operations to a more fluid environment. “Existing rules do not accommodate the kind of solution we are proposing. Arriving at the right rules for operation will be critical to the success of the system.” Stipulations thus far include maximum 300 meters of transit and operation close to land, simplifying requirements for passenger safety: “Shorter transport legs simply mean there is less risk of accidents.”

He adds that short-travel, highly-automated ferries place less demand on seafaring skills than larger crafts sailing the oceans. “The necessary backup is also easily accessible from shore, including emergency services.” The system will not be one hundred percent autonomous, Dyrkoren says, but will employ the ‘human in the loop’ principle, involving remote monitoring and operations.

High-powered hometown

Founded by a group of professors from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in December of 2019, the Zeabuz team recruited Dyrkoren in early 2020 from his post at the helm of BlueEye Robotics, a Norwegian maker of remote controlled underwater drones.

Dyrkoren relates that virtually every component needed to build Zeabuz can be designed and manufactured in close proximity to their headquarters in Trondheim, located on Norway’s central coast. “We have turnkey suppliers of systems and subsystems, and they are constantly revealing new developments in marine autonomy.” Adding to the potent local mix is NTNU, with more than a decade of research on autonomous systems.

Zeabuz technology is derived from well-proven products like dynamic positioning, where market Norway has been a world leader since the 1990s. “We can use the same basic algorithms and power technology. We plan to use off-the-shelf technology wherever possible, but in this community that also means cutting edge technology.”

Moving fast to meet the future

The Zeabuz concept can be deployed relatively quickly, Dyrkoren says: “There are other marine transit projects currently under consideration around the world, but they have fairly long time frames. This could be done much faster.” The company’s ambition is to have an operational pilot within two years. “The market will determine the pace of progress after that,” Dyrkoren adds. He reports that a prototype is currently under construction, including both vessels and docks.

The future mosaic of sustainable transportation will contain many pieces, and the urban sea bus is likely to be one of them. For now, Dyrkoren’s first priority is getting a pilot project on the market. As good as Norway is on marine autonomous solutions, he acknowledges that Zeabuz must move fast to keep ahead of fierce competition: “The project is up to the challenge. We have a high-powered team with clear goals, and we can generate a lot of energy once we get up to speed.”


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