Futuristic shipping in the offing

Self-propelled ships, mooring without crew and sailing drones. It sounds futuristic, but these ‘smart’ technologies are already possible on paper. However, inland shipping is still cautious when it comes to introducing game changing innovations. Both people working in shipping and those ashore agree that this has to change. ‘Technologically you can already sail a ship without a person on board from A to B’ says developer of autonomous sailing vessels Maarten Ruyssenaers.

The term smart shipping includes everything that ensures that ships can sail safer, faster or more sustainably with the help of new technology. This includes the modernization of communication, says William Gerritsma (30), chairman of JongBLN. “We have actually been working with smart shipping for a hundred years. We started with shipgraving and morse, then came the radar, later we got the radio and now we continue with the internet.’

Self-propelled ships
Gerritsma, who sails on the dry cargo ship Ferox hisself, sees that the industry people are also reticent about new developments concerning (semi) self-propelled vessels. “Both young- and older people aren’t too excited. For example, they are afraid that their job will disappear. Many people also think that some techniques are not feasible at all and that it is not worth investing in them.’

According to him, it is an unjust fear. ‘The independent skipper keeps existing. It is still “schoenmaker, blijf bij je leest” (a Dutch saying, roughly translated to “Shoemaker, stick to your profession”), we know more about transport from A to B than a system.’ ‘Even if there are self-propelled ships, they still have to be controlled and monitored. The skipper can do that from the shore.’

Autonomous on the road
In Norway the fully self-propelled container ship Yara Birkeland will soon be in service. The intention is that from 2020 onwards it will sail completely autonomously along the coast with artificial fertilizer. Japan is taking matters into action on a lot bigger scale. There, shipbuilder Japan Marine United will build 250 independent container ships, which will sail at sea from 2025 onwards. However, inland navigation is nowhere as important as in the Netherlands.

Sailing drones
Self-propelled small vessels from Aquatic Drones BV appeared in the news this year as the water authorities start to use the water drones in soil research. ‘They can measure floor heights with sensors to plan dredging work. But they also measure water quality, inspect quays and check bridges and locks under water’, says CEO Maarten Ruyssenaers.

The software and hardware that are now being used is for ships up to five by two meters. But the company is also engaged in independently sailing larger ships. ‘We integrate radar, AIS, lidar and camera technology to enable a ship to sail autonomously. The ship can then sail to a specific destination and avoid ships and objects such as buoys along the way”, tells Ruyssenaers proudly.

The term autonomous in this sector is rather broad. A ship that can sail from A to B by following (blind) preprogrammed GPS points, according to some, is already autonomous. A ship that can evade objects itself and can disembark and moor without a crew is really that, find others. Yet there is a world of difference between them. The technique of Aquatic Drones must ensure that a ship sails completely autonomously in the future. “That does not involve anyone anymore”, says Ruyssenaers. ‘The ship can sail a route independently, moor and bypass cargo.’

Because of safety, people always remain necessary. ‘In case of an emergency, you always need a monitoring system onshore. This could be done by virtual reality, where someone can watch live with cameras in 3D what is going on and can help or control the technology.’ According to Ruyssenaers, we no longer speak of a “sailing drone”. ‘A flying drone is actually a remotely controlled helicopter or plane. A sailing drone or an independent inland vessel is actually an autonomous robot on the water.’

Form of the ships
The market in the Netherlands does look at the development of self-propelled inland vessels, but is not yet eager to quickly pick up the techniques, tells Michel van Dijk of Inland Terminal Veghel and Cuijk. He is a pioneer in the field of new techniques. ‘Inland navigation is an important section in the transport sector. The developments are still very early, but we really have to start thinking about which vessels will fit best in the future.’

Van Dijk points out that ships are currently being built for long-term and long-distance sailing under any weather condition. ‘It is bizarre, of course, that we use ships that can even sail to the Black Sea if we want to transport a few containers here on the Maas river.’

By working with computer models and releasing calculations on the route, a hull could be designed that is suitable for navigating for the duration of a day and which can navigate optimally against the current. ‘We have more of a hull with a lot of depth and volume than an extra sturdy ship. When designing new ships, we also want to look at the least possible manpower, good working conditions and the lowest possible energy consumption.’

Stay competitive
Van Dijk is currently looking into the possibilities that his own company offers. ‘We also look a lot at the road, because the developments there are already a lot further. Autonomous trucks are going to come and the driver business will also be simplified by smarter controls. “Because the availability of road transport is getting better, smarter, cleaner and faster, inland shipping, according to Van Dijk, has to keep up with developments in order to remain competitive. ‘The fleet often picks up small, change a button here and there. But we must make remote control possible, look at the propulsion and structurally review the inland navigation system.’

Figurehead Nancy
In order to give the innovations around smart shipping a boost from the government, last year the Smart Shipping Challenge was organised and a platform was set up with about 750 parties now committed to it. Nancy Scheijven, director of shipping traffic and water management at Rijkswaterstaat, is the figurehead of Smart Shipping. ‘The subject is fairly new and that is why we felt it was important that as a figurehead there should be a contact point between the government and the sector’, she explains.

Rijkswaterstaat is mainly concerned with infrastructure that is suitable for ‘smarter’ ships. ‘We can exchange a lot of information with ships. Think of the actual height of bridges, the water level, crowds at locks and other information that is important on board.’

Rijkswaterstaat wants to connect more parties through the Smart Shipping Community this year by organizing specific theme sessions. Scheijven: ‘In the future there will be autonomous as well as semi-autonomous and regular ships and recreational shipping on our waterways. We need to get together and think about traffic management and what smart shipping will mean for us.”

Jump forward
The introduction of new systems will not go without a struggle, predicts the young skipper Gerritsma, but he is confident: “Inland navigation remains a bit of a conservative world. It takes a long time before changes are made. Just look at the introduction of the AIS. Now that it is there, we navigate with it and the majority does not want to go without it. People are often afraid of the unknown and unknown makes unloved. But the new systems will mean a major leap forward.”