UNCONVENTIONAL thinking and disruptive ideas have shaped maritime transport into the industry as we know it. From compasses to steam power to the standardisation of shipping containers, innovation has propelled us to where we are today: the era of digitalisation and decarbonisation.

A modern example of maritime innovation is currently under construction in Hobart. Australian shipbuilder Incat Tasmania is working on a lightweight, 100% battery-electric ship for South American ferry operator Buquebus.

At 130 metres long overall, the ro-pax ferry would be the largest of its kind in the world, according to Incat Tasmania. Buquebus will operate the new ship on a route between Buenos Aires and Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay, a distance of 35 nautical miles.

The new ferry was around 18 months away from completion when DCN spoke to Incat chairman Robert Clifford in November 2023. Incat had built two thirds of the ferry’s hull and about one third of the superstructure.

“It’s going to have a number of features that are a little unusual,” Mr Clifford said.

For starters, the ferry will employ an innovative waterjet propulsion system because it will operate in the particularly shallow waters around the Río de la Plata – an estuary which empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

“We’ve used waterjets before, but in this case, there are going to be eight small waterjets rather than two big ones, largely because of the shallow water and the shallow draught of the ship,” Mr Clifford said.

A series of e-motors will drive the waterjet propulsion system, and the ship’s batteries will power the e-motors. Incat Tasmania tasked Finnish technology group Wärtsilä with supplying the power package that will enable the ship to run.

New concepts

Wärtsilä will provide the electrical system integration for the new ferry. Mikko Mannerkorpi, general manager of Wärtsilä Marine Power sales in Australasia, explained the company’s power plant package includes battery solutions, electrical systems, propulsion systems and propulsion controls. Incat Tasmania booked the order with Wärtsilä in July 2023.

Concept image for Buquebus’ new battery-electric ferry. Image: Incat Tasmania

“Not only is this vessel the largest catamaran ever built, it also will be the largest fully electric vessel,” Mr Mannerkorpi said.

He noted the advantages of using the waterjet system over the traditional engine, gearbox and propeller shaft setup.

“What is quite unique on this one is … this is the first time ever that electric driven motors are operating the waterjets. This is a new concept for Wärtsilä. This helps with efficiency, because you minimise the efficiency losses.”

Wärtsilä Marine Power vice-president of project services Paul Kohle said global climate regulations are pushing for constant technology development to help reduce emissions.

“Decarbonising the maritime sector requires a wide range of measures, and it’s a transformation which will take active collaboration, research and new innovations,” he told DCN.

“We understand that decarbonising maritime is no simple task. The challenge lies in selecting and employing the right solutions and technologies efficiently, economically, and at the right times.

“We have the broadest portfolio of solutions, technology and industry expertise to help guide our customers, working in partnership over the long-term, to make the right decisions for their business.”

The question of shore power

Wärtsilä was up to the challenge of powering the battery-electric ferry, but that was only half of the equation. The other half was the availability of shore power.

Wärtsilä and Incat established early in the project that shoreside facilities in Argentina and Uruguay would allow the new ferry to plug in and recharge between voyages.

“The critical thing when it comes to electric ferries is that the technology is available,” Mr Mannerkorpi said.

“Usually, the challenge in this kind of situation is the charging.”

Shore power stations are available on both ends of the new ferry’s route. Better yet, almost all of Uruguay’s energy comes from renewable sources. According to the World Economic Forum, the nation runs on 98% renewable energy. Mr Mannerkorpi highlighted what this means for an electric ship.

“When the vessel is operating, it’s green, but also the electricity is green, and not produced by fossil fuels. So, that makes this case very unique and truly zero emissions.”

He noted the full-electric option isn’t currently feasible for all routes. Lack of shore power and infrastructure may be an issue, and sometimes the route is just too long.

“Fully electric works in certain situations, and for certain customers it is the ideal solution, but practically it doesn’t work everywhere. If you’re crossing the Atlantic, you just cannot have enough battery to get over.”

Wärtsilä as a company hopes to see more infrastructure developed to support decarbonisation.

“Usually what happens in the marketplace is the technology becomes available before the infrastructure becomes available,” Mr Mannerkorpi said.

He used the example of liquefied natural gas, noting LNG-operated vessels had been available from a technology point of view for some time before bunkering facilities became available in Australia.

“It’s more or less that everyone needs to pick up their game. Everyone needs to invest in this and that’s how we can make it work.”

Battery electric dreams

The ship under construction at the Incat shipyard is a big deal for the shipbuilder and Wärtsilä – and evidently the 300 ferry industry representatives who recently turned up at for a technical tour – but Incat Tasmania has other work in the pipeline.

“It’s quite an exciting project for us, but it’s not the only project we’re working on,” Mr Clifford said.

In November 2023 the shipbuilder announced plans to deliver more battery electric ships going forward. Incat said it received “significant interest” from industry after unveiling the first design of a series produced 70-metre battery electric ship at the 2023 Interferry conference. Incat intends to produce several of these smaller vessels out of its shipyard each year.

“Incidentally, we are in the process of finalising details for ships that will be running out of charter in Malta, with another international customer,” Mr Clifford said.

“They’ll be 70-metre ships – quite a lot smaller – but we do expect quite a number of these ships to be built for the medium size operators of the world.

“We’re also negotiating with several European customers at the moment for even larger ships of about 130 to 160 metres.”

Incat would design these ships to run in waters around Europe and the UK.

“There’s quite a large potential market that we’re working on, which we expect to have a number of ships on order for in the very near future,” Mr Clifford said.

“They’re all electric ships; they’ll all be powered by batteries. There may be some variation in the style of batteries for each ship, and there may be some variation in the electrical equipment because of the different sizes and services. But it’s an extremely interesting time for us that electricity is taking such a big part of our design time.

“We have to get used to dealing with electricity and these large voltages and large quantities of electricity … which is not insignificant, as you can imagine.”

Mr Clifford believes virtually all ferry companies are interested in reducing their emissions to net-zero as time goes on and in line with regulations. That means the idea of zero-emissions vessels is rather appealing to the industry.

“All the ferry companies have taken a serious interest. Naturally electric ships are better suited to the shorter routes, like the English Channel, the Irish Sea, the Baltic and places in the Mediterranean. All the ferry companies that offer ships of, say, 20-to-50-mile services, they’re probably the main ones [who are interested in the battery-electric vessels].”

Powering ahead

Wärtsilä signed a memorandum of understanding with Incat Tasmania at the Interferry conference to extend its support for the next generation, lightweight aluminium catamarans. The MoU covered the design and development of integrated e-packages for the electric vessels, including battery electric systems, power distribution systems and management systems.

Mr Mannerkorpi said the agreement marked the next step in the relationship between the two companies.

And as Incat Tasmania looks ahead, it is with a vision to expand its Hobart facility to have a more suitable site for the many electric vessels it hopes to build in the future.

“They’re not major constructions [on the facility], but they they’re not insignificant either. We have to make these changes so that we can expand the workforce,” he said.

“Right at the moment we have about 450 employees. We’re going to need to double that and double it again as time goes on, and perhaps even double that again. That won’t be an easy task and it won’t be in five minutes.

“It’s an exciting time for an old shipbuilder who retired 20 years ago. I haven’t really retired.”


There is another shipbuilder which has turned to innovative technology and design to contribute to the global decarbonisation effort. Finnish shipyard Meyer Turku specialises in building cruise ships, and at the end of November it delivered Icon of the Seas, the largest in the world. The new icon-class vessel is the first LNG-powered ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet.

Meyer Turku envisions development of a climate-neutral cruise ship in the future. It aims to establish a concept for the ship by 2025 – early concept images are of a sleek, futuristic vessel. Meyer Turku also aims to develop a carbon neutral shipyard and shipbuilding operations by 2030.

The company is working toward these objectives under its NEcOLEAP project – a research and development initiative focusing on the ship itself, shipbuilding, smart technologies and future drivers.

Icon of the Seas during its second sea trial in October 2023. Image: Royal Caribbean Internacional

NEcOLEAP project manager Kimmo Hiukka said Business Finland and the European Union are funding the program. The idea for the program was born in 2021 when Meyer Turku started thinking about ways to boost its green transition.

“You can look at NEcOLEAP in a holistic way – we are not just looking at the future fuels, we need to look at it as a whole package,” Mr Hiukka said.

The NEcOLEAP project will also explore technology that could be leveraged to develop energy and resource efficiency, automation, robotics and cybersecurity for vessels and shipbuilding.

Ida Ervasti, another project manager for the NEcOLEAP program, said Meyer Turku is aiming for the green transition at its shipyard with its entire ecosystem.

“We’re really bringing everybody in our ecosystem … on this journey with us,” Ms Ervasti said.

“It’s mainly about the research, so we’re working very strongly with academia with our ecosystem to think about how we want to do things in the future; what our product looks like, especially regarding sustainability factors; and also, how the shipyard is building the ship.”

Mr Hiukka also explained how Meyer Turku plans to use virtual reality throughout the project in the form of an industrial metaverse. An interactive virtual world, known as the Necoverse, was developed to create more opportunities for training, planning and remote operations of the shipyard and shipbuilding. New collaboration tools were being developed within the Necoverse project for the Meyer shipyard, to improve energy efficiency in training, commissioning, planning, operation and maintenance.

“We are looking at virtual realities [to understand] how we handle spaces and how we handle future engineering,” Mr Hiukka said.

“It is a very iterative process, and a complex process. And you go three steps forward, and maybe five backwards.”

Digital port calls

Elsewhere in the digital realm, the software platform company Awake.AI has set out to automate and orchestrate port and sea traffic operations. The company was established in Finland in 2018 to deal with environmental issues in maritime logistics, a lack of transparency and poor communication among port stakeholders.

Awake.AI co-founder and CEO Karno Tenovuo found smart ships were unable to interact with the rest of the logistics chain unless someone developed digital interfaces and machine learning models and linked them to an open platform.

“We are a team that has a background from Rolls Royce, where we were developing the world’s first remote controlled autonomous vessels, then we realised that those vessels will come to port and wait like everybody else,” Mr Tenovuo said.

“We didn’t see anybody solving that challenge, so we decided to do it.”

Mr Tenovuo and the founding team began to work with power authorities, port operators and cargo owners to solve the problem.

The Awake.AI data platform powers the company’s flagship application Awake Smart Port. The app includes a messaging system to get all port actors communicating on operational decisions. It contains real-time maps with AI-predicted vessel movements, including ETA and ETD. The app also has a berth planner, a port resource and task manager and a system for reporting cargo operations with estimated loading and finish times.

“We provide all the predictions and ship events to all the ports in Finland, so for example, when [a freight forwarder] wants to know two weeks before arrival when the ship is actually arriving, we can tell them with better than 24-hour accuracy,” Mr Tenovuo said.

“When it gets closer – let’s say one week before arrival – we are only within a couple of hours’ error margins. So, it’s about 80% more accurate than any other system or information source out there.”

Mr Tenovuo believes the maritime industry is becoming more sustainable and intelligent in four phases.

“The first phase is about, things like data sharing, collaboration, transparency, how to break the siloed operations they have today,” he said.

“Then in the second phase, you can start to optimise operations and offer new digital services.

“Then on the third phase, you can start to automate some of those processes. And eventually, some processes will be autonomous. So, they operate without people in the loop.”

Awake.AI also created a marketplace in its platform – a digital environment designed for trading services and digital and physical products.

The maritime marketplace went live in October 2022. Mr Tenovuo described it as an Amazon for ports. He said marketplace innovations such as Airbnb and fast-food delivery companies had changed the way industries work.

“We realised that there is no marketplace in ports. So, we created one. And now, we’ve been piloting this with … ports, shipping companies, agents and stevedoring companies.

“Essentially, we are matching the buyers and sellers automatically when ships are coming. So now that International Maritime Organization and others have set the regulations for maritime single windows, we’re linking this to the national single windows. So, every time a vessel registers into any national single window anywhere in the world, we automatically match the buyers and sellers.

“We predict what certain services or products they need.”

Safer seafaring

Another technology company headquartered in Finland is working closely with Japan on an innovative approach to seafaring and maritime navigation.

Groke Technologies has developed a situational awareness system, Groke Pro, which takes different sensor inputs – day and night camera sensors, machine vision, sensor vision and real-time risk analysis – and fuses them together to give crews a clear overview of what is happening around their vessels, even in challenging environmental conditions.

“Our mission is making seafaring safer, one vessel at a time,” Groke Technologies head of products Mikko Mäkelä-Vaitilo said.

He said the system aims to improve watchkeeping practices to make operations more efficient, but also for the safety of seafarers. The company lists a handful of “common reasons for collisions” on its website, such as poor lookout vision, bad decision making, fatigue and lack of communication.

“The problem in vessel operations is that the crew is forced to take a look at many systems and [look out through the window] and make decisions based on that information,” Mr Mäkelä-Vaitilo said.

“And it is analysed that around 80% of maritime accidents involve human error. That’s the problem that we are trying to solve.

“[Our system] reduces the cognitive stress of the crew, especially when it’s limited light conditions in the dark. So, the visibility and the understanding of the surroundings will be better with our system.”

Sails on bulk carrier Pyxis Ocean impacted visibility from the bridge

Japanese companies are among the first to invest in Groke Technologies. In 2021 Mitsubishi Corporation and Groke devised a plan to develop a situation recognition system and an operation support system that would reduce crew stress and improve safety in operational monitoring. The companies would roll the systems out on domestic vessels in Japan.

“We strongly believed that autonomous technologies could be gradually harnessed for the needs of seafaring,” Groke Technologies CEO Juha Rokka said in a statement.

“Our partnership with Mitsubishi sealed our decision to focus on Japan’s domestic market which covers several thousands of vessels.

“Mitsubishi offered us more in-depth understanding of the market and its challenges. The industry is suffering from aging crews and not attracting as many next generation seafarers as it used to. Due to the challenging operating environment and monotony of the tasks, people sometimes make mistakes that may lead to accidents or close by situations.

“We believe that our technology allows the crew to focus on the essential and leave the monotonous tasks to the assistive technology.”

An investment from Sumitomo Mitsui Finance and Leasing followed in 2021 and from Tokyo Kisen in 2022. Funds have also come from Japanese tanker operators Uyeno Transtech, Tsurumi Sunmarine and Asahi Tanker. The companies all shared a goal to address seafarer shortages and navigational safety.

And in November 2023, Groke was tasked with installing cameras on the bulk carrier Pyxis Ocean, the first vessel in the world to be retrofitted with WindWings – an innovative form of wind propulsion. Bar Technologies and Yara Marine Technologies developed the propulsion technology. The cameras were necessary because the hard sails were restricting visibility from the bridge.

Groke said camera installation took place at the COSCO shipyard in China after Groke met requirements from DNV. Since August 2023, Pyxis Ocean has already made several voyages around the world. Groke has been following the journey closely and supporting the crew along the way. The company plans to continue to grow its use cases to vessels with limited visibility.

DCN met with Meyer Turku, Awake.AI and Groke Technologies in October 2023 as a guest of Business Finland.

This article appeared in the December 2023/January 2024 edition of DCN Magazine