Flanders tests first unmanned shipping vessel in Europe

Summary

A remotely controlled barge is being tested in West Flanders, a first for Europe and a project that could open up a promising future for smaller waterways

One operator, several ships

The first unmanned shipping vessel in Europe is being tested in two inland waterways in Flanders. The Watertruck+ is transporting construction aggregate along the Ypres-Ijzer canal and the Passchendaele-Nieuwpoort canal.

The year-long pilot project is being carried out by Brussels-based shipping group De Cloedt, the owner of the vessel (pictured), in co-operation with government agency Vlaamse Waterweg. The inland route from Diksmuide to Ostend is little-used and therefore a perfect testing ground.

“In the first phase of the test, a skipper will be on board to ensure that it doesn’t encounter any problems and to correct the navigation system if necessary,” said De Cloedt chair Patrick Degryse. “After that, it will manoeuvre with no crew on board.”

Several unmanned vessels can be monitored and controlled by a single shore operator

- Seafar CEO Louis-Robert Cool

It will in this test phase, however, the vessel will be controlled remotely and travel at a maximum of six kilometres an hour. “An operator in the control centre will control the barge manually, with both existing navigation aids and new technology available to ensure safe navigation.”

The Watertruck+ technology was developed by Seafar, based at the port of Antwerp. “Seafar develops technology that makes it possible to control automated inland vessel remotely,” explained CEO Louis-Robert Cool. “Several unmanned vessels can be monitored and controlled by a single shore operator via the Shore Control Center. This offers a solution to the shortage of crew in the inland shipping sector and improve operational efficiency.”

Vlaamse Waterweg is the first government agency in Europe that has adapted legislation to allow ‘smart shipping’. The Watertruck and testing ground developed in Flanders’ waterways are pioneers in the automated shipping sector in Europe.

“The Flemish government puts great emphasis on innovation,” said mobility minister Lydia Peeters. “Innovations in automated inland shipping help the entire sector to move forward. By testing unmanned shipping, we are offering promising perspectives for the commercial use of the region’s smaller waterways.”

Photo courtesy Lydia Peeters