Rapid digital developments water taxis

Nowhere in Europe there are water taxis like in Rotterdam. A demand-driven transport network of twenty boats that take you from A to B on request is unique. Watertaxi Rotterdam, which has more than fifty of its own docks throughout the city, has been a symbol of the city of Rotterdam and its port for 27 years now. In order to keep developing in terms of digitalisation, Watertaxi Rotterdam has started working with Flying Fish, a company that focuses on maritime innovation. Flying Fish makes good use of the room for experimentation that Rotterdam offers. The brothers Gerben and Johan Schonebaum, co-founders of the Delft start-up Flying Fish, are working on a digital water taxi network. They are also aiming to have a water taxi running on hydrogen by 2022.

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Flying Fish consists of a team of eighteen young technical minds who want to make the world more sustainable. “We combine years of experience gained by Watertaxi Rotterdam with a fresh approach,” says Johan, “which is perfect for setting up a digital water taxi network and operating the boats more economically. It should lead to our own water taxi app, which should improve the ease of use and the efficiency of passenger transport by water. We’re aiming to make all water taxi operations emission free. But the step from diesel-powered boats to water taxis that run entirely on electricity is a big one. That’s why we want to utilise the existing fleet more efficiently first, with intelligent automation. Currently Watertaxi Rotterdam operates as such: bookings for trips are collected in the control centre. There’s already a software environment for trip planning, but now we’re going to take it a step further. The idea is that the system will plan the trips. The huge growth of passenger numbers in Rotterdam is simply making it impossible for the planning operators working at Watertaxi Rotterdam to keep up. Their role is changing. Automation isn’t going to replace staff – it’s going to support them.”

Sensor module

The digitalisation of the service consists of two elements that the brothers are currently working on. “Firstly, we’re developing algorithms that match the customer requests to the planning,” says Gerben. “If I want to go from the Euromast to the SS Rotterdam and somebody else calls two minutes later with the same request, algorithms need to be developed so that we don’t send two boats – just one that they can share. That doesn’t sound so complicated, but Watertaxi Rotterdam transports thousands of people on a busy day. That makes it impossible for someone working at the central control centre to keep track of it all. The algorithms are meant to help with that. Secondly, the central operator has to know exactly where the boats are, where they are going and how many people are on board. We bundle that information up clearly in a sensor module we developed in-house that will shortly be installed on all the boats. All the information from the boats then comes together in a big system. As soon as customers order a water taxi, the system makes the right, smart choices. On top of that, we can see the boats’ emissions at various speeds. That helps skippers to decide to sail calmly instead of at full throttle, for instance when he doesn’t have any customers onboard and is going back to the main office. Little changes like that let us minimise the diesel consumption and it’s how we are helping make the Rotterdam region a bit greener.”

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Room for testing and demonstration

Flying Fish makes good use of the space for experimentation that Rotterdam provides. “We’ve tested our sensor module in a water taxi on the Maas,” says Gerben. Would it work as expected? Would it still work underneath the Erasmus Bridge, when the signal drops for a moment? Watertaxi Rotterdam gave us the opportunity to build in something like this. The result is that we are now in the production phase, finally fitting sensor modules in all the water taxis. We’re rolling out the automation step by step throughout the river, so in that sense you could say that the whole Rotterdam stretch of the Nieuwe Maas is being used as a living lab. The digital water taxi network will ultimately also provide an app for Watertaxi Rotterdam customers. By 2022, people will be able to book a water taxi easily using their phones. We also want to integrate a payment system into the app.”

Rotterdam as a role model

“Rotterdam stands out from other maritime hubs,” adds Gerben, “because it’s the only city in Europe where water taxis operate demand driven. Sure, there’s transport by water in other European cities, but that’ll be a ferry that goes back and forth every hour, for example. Not like a Rotterdam water taxi, which a customer can order at any time during the day. There’s a similar sort of system in Venice, but it’s aimed specifically at tourists. That makes it too pricey for the locals, whereas the water taxis in Rotterdam are in fact intended for Rotterdam residents. On top of that, the water taxis provide connections between the city and places that aren’t so easy to get to by land. Plenty of places in the city can be reached much more quickly by the river than by land. RDM Campus, for instance, is a place that’s easy to get to using the water taxi. So the water taxi also has a major role in the links between the various areas in the city that have water in between them. Rotterdam is acting as a role model for other cities where there’s lots of water. Additionally, Watertaxi Rotterdam has made agreements with companies near the water that will let commuters get to and from their work more quickly, rather than having to queue up in traffic jams.”

Collaboration

The collaboration between Watertaxi Rotterdam and Flying Fish fits in seamlessly with the aims of the Rotterdam Maritime Capital of Europe network (RMCoE): using digitalisation with the aim of making the maritime sector efficient, sustainable and safe.

This is a network of companies, intermediaries, centres of expertise and regional authorities that are working on the world’s most complete and competitive maritime network. Everything is available and close by within a radius of thirty kilometres: industry, transhipment, shipping companies, manufacturers, financiers, insurers, transport, commodity dealers and shipbuilders, as well as high-tech start-ups, specialist training courses and innovative research centres. Having everything so close by makes cooperation easy. Appointments are set up quickly, and speed and quality subsequently result in a competitive advantage.

The hydrogen water taxi

On top of developing the digital water taxi network further, Flying Fish is busy designing the first hydrogen-powered water taxi in Rotterdam. A boat of this size being operated commercially entirely on this clean energy source is a world first! The hydrogen water taxi is being developed by the SWIM consortium with funding from the Municipality of Rotterdam, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and the Gieskes Strijbis Fund. “We’re focusing on designing the boat,” explains Johan, “together with ZEPP.solutions, another Delft startup. Enviu, a developer of innovative social ventures from Rotterdam, is tackling the project management. They are already involved in the joint venture between Watertaxi Rotterdam and the Port of Rotterdam that is aiming to create a hydrogen bunker station in Rotterdam’s port area.” Gerben is full of praise for the environment that Rotterdam has on offer for them. “A hydrogen-powered water taxi is new tech, which makes it complicated in terms of rules and regulations. But Watertaxi Rotterdam, the Municipality of Rotterdam and lots of others who are involved are pulling out all the stops to make this possible. An environment like this makes it possible for us to make these technological leaps forward. Rotterdam likes being the frontrunner in developments like this. And so do we. Together, we’re an innovative combination.”

2022

From January 2022 onwards, customers will be able to take hydrogen water taxis in Rotterdam. “The coronavirus hasn’t affected our planning,” says Johan. “The digital water taxi network should therefore be largely ready by then. But the nice thing about software is that you can improve it step by step and start using more and more functionality. We are setting this network up in a way that will let other maritime cities throughout the world adopt it simply. We’re currently in discussions with New York and Amsterdam, among others. It’s great that Rotterdam is the showcase and can be the role model for the whole maritime world.”