Unleash Future Boats

Autonomous cars have been a hot-button topic for years. But can the technology be brought to the oceans and rivers of the world? A team of entrepreneurs and engineers with experience in the German car industry is hoping their self-driving ship will come in.

December 2022

Ships with no captains or crew? A Schleswig-based start-up called Unleash Future Boats imagines just such a future. It has invested heavily in the concept of autonomous vessels for ferrying people and cargo and saving money, at the same time reducing the environmental impact of the maritime sector. The company’s ambitious projects include autonomous water taxis, capable of carrying a dozen passengers, that aim to make urban water travel more efficient.

Founded in 2020 by Lars and Stefanie Engelhard, two German engineers with top-level experience in electromobility and autonomous systems, Unleash Future Boats (UFB) is also working on fleets of cargo ships and tugboats for container ships UFB vessels are powered by electric motors and hydrogen fuel cells, thereby reducing emissions and noise pollution along heavily populated river routes. “There are so many possibilities for innovation in the maritime sector,” says cofounder Stefanie Engelhard. “We are rewriting the rules of maritime transportation.”

Lars and Stefanie Engelhard from Unleash Future Boats with Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action Robert Habeck. The company received special permission to change water rules to test zero-emission autonomous mobility and logistics. © Unleash Future Boats


A sandbox on the water

And that has attracted attention in high places. This year, UFB received permission from the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK) to explore what kind of changes to laws and regulations would be needed to make autonomous watercraft a reality. On the 42-kilometer Schlei Inlet, north of Hamburg, the usual rules governing watercraft were temporarily suspended to allow experimentation. “We’re able to modify the regulations just for this area and see what’s possible,” Engelhard says. “It’s small and perfect for developing our technology.”

The project is one of the ministry’s regulatory “sandboxes” – real environment tests of innovative technologies, products, services and approaches. They’re part of a larger push to slash red tape in industries with big potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “They allow new digital and sustainable technologies to be tested in the real world, even if the general regulatory framework does not yet permit this,” says a spokesperson for the ministry, Robert Säverin.

Sandboxes to support innovation

Germany’s “regulatory sandboxes” support business innovation by providing opportunities to test regulations for experimental new applications, including AUTONOMOUS MACHINES, AI AND CLIMATETECH. “Along the way, we learn about the impact of innovations on the economy, society and the environment, as well as the necessary legal framework,” says BMWK spokesman Robert Säverin. “This allows for more innovation-friendly laws and faster transitions from research to market.”