Smart Shipping E

Inland shipping has been struggling with a shortage of skippers for several years. This means, among other things, that smaller vessels disappear and the smaller waterways are no longer used. In addition, it is also difficult for inland shipping to compete with road transport.

Smart Shipping

In time, this will cause a reverse modal shift: cargo will be brought back from the waterway to the road. However, the road is already dealing with a lot of congestion while the potential of the waterway is being used less and less. This will lead to major mobility problems. Over the years, an international consensus has grown that the automation of vessels can be a mean to solve a large part of the above problems and to revive transport via the waterways. In this way, the great pressure on our roads will also be reduced. Automated sailing will a.o.:

  • Increase the efficiency of transport on inland waterways.
  • Cope with the shortage of employees and bring new profiles to the sector.
  • Enable new business cases and flow of goods.
  • Greening the sector and thus contributing to the realization of the European Green Deal.

To help the future of automated sailing, De Vlaamse Waterweg nv started up the Smart Shipping program. By taking on a pioneering role, De Vlaamse Waterweg nv creates attention for the story of automated sailing. In this way we want to pave the way for companies that are engaged in automated sailing and thus contribute to the future of automated sailing for commercial purposes.

In concrete terms, the Smart Shipping program works around 4 pillars:

  1. Smart vessels: A smart vessel is used to refer to a vessel that has a minimal form of automation on board. The degree of automation is not important here. Any automated vessel must guarantee the same minimal level of safety as a regular vessel.
  2. Smart infrastructure: This is waterway infrastructure that is highly automated and operated remotely. Interaction between infrastructure and vessels takes place digitally in order to guide traffic as safely as possible.
  3. Smart data: This is data sharing that strives to be a smart, smooth and flexible process in which all communication between the government and the users of the waterway is digitized and takes place according to internationally standardized procedures.
  4. Smart regulation: This is regulation that supports innovation and future-oriented initiatives, and this always with an eye for safety.

Leaflet Smart Shipping

Regulatory framework

To ensure that Smart Shipping and the accompanying techniques can be tested and developed in Flanders smoothly and safely, the Vlaamse Waterweg nv has worked on a legal framework that offers more room for innovation. As a first result, a new Decree was introduced in June 2019 . Article 50 and 51 of Chapter 3 describe the possibility of Flemish waterway authorities to give temporary exemptions on certain rules and regulations to enable tests with innovative concepts. Those concepts may also include automated systems on board of a ship or on the shore. The temporary exemptions concern rules and regulations about the crew, the navigation of the ship, the technical aspects or the equipment of the ship, the regulation of shipping traffic and the regulations with regard to the activities on board and ashore. The deviations cannot relate to provisions on supervision and enforcement and to provisions of a criminal nature.

The exemptions have a maximum validity period of one year and can be renewed depending on the needs, without the total validity period of a deviation being allowed to exceed five years. When admitting for the experiments or pilot projects, the following matters must in any case be determined:

  • what the purpose of the experiments or pilot projects is;
  • on which waterways, waterway sections or parts of the port area the experiments or pilot projects are carried out;
  • for which period the admission applies;
  • which rules can be deviated from and, where relevant, under which conditions deviations are permitted;
  • which safety measures are taken for the implementation of the experiments or the pilot projects.

The waterway manager or the port authority may withdraw the admission in whole or in part if, in his opinion, the safety as a result or partly as a result of the experiments or the pilot projects is endangered.

The next step is to create a legislative framework that allows automated navigation for commercial use. This is not only a Flemish, but also an international matter: the Flemish regulations are based on international regulations. The Vlaamse Waterweg nv wants to share its knowledge with international organizations in order to support them in researching the impact of Smart Shipping on international legislation and regulations and has therefore started a scoping exercise in the CCNR and the UNECE.

Test area 

The introduction of the Collective Decree enabled De Vlaamse Waterweg nv to open up its waterway network as a testing area for automated vessels. Tests can only be carried out with the permission of De Vlaamse Waterweg nv.


How does it work?

If an organization wants to carry out a test on the waterways of De Vlaamse Waterweg nv, The Agency for Maritime and Coastal services or in the Flemish part of the VTS – Scheldt area (see below), the single point of contact (SPOC) must be contacted. Contact details can be found further on this page. The SPOC will send you the application forms. These forms consist of:

  • A CONOPS (concept of operations)
  • A gap analysis of the Police Regulations
  • A risk analysis

The evaluation committee of De Vlaamse Waterweg nv will assess the application within 6 weeks. If the application is approved, the applicant will be contacted for an interview in which all practical matters will be discussed. After that, everything can be recorded in an agreement. The tests are then performed according to the code of conduct and the agreement.

During testing, the testing organization completes a report on their test. This report states:

  • A description of the testing activities, including date, position and time
  • A description of the problems encountered by the tester and how they were solved

The report is signed and sent to the SPOC for validation within 2 weeks after the end of the test.

VTS – Scheldt area

For the VTS - Scheldt area, submitting an application as above is the standard when the test takes place in Flanders. If the test takes place in the Netherlands, the link to Rijkswaterstaat must be used. A specific procedure then follows.


For questions and comments, the Single Point of Contact is happy to help you:
Ann-Sofie Pauwelyn
RIS Projectmanager – Smart Shipping 

Test runs


A pilot project has been running in the Westhoek since October 2019, on the account of Seafar. This is a Belgian company that offers services to help operate unmanned and crew-reduced vessels. through their Shore Control Center in Antwerp, they provide support and control automated vessels.

They are testing on the Ypres-Yser Canal and the Plassendale-Nieuwpoort Canal with a Water truck, on behalf of Decloedt. Since April 2020, they have been given additional permission to deploy two additional Water trucks on the same route. After successfully sailing a full year, their test was extended for an additional year. So they will be navigating until at least October 2021.

For the test, an unmanned inland vessel is used that transports sand on the Ostend-Nieuwpoort-Diksmuide route and the test is carried out in several phases. In the first phase, the technology is tested with crew on board. This way the skipper can always take control of the vessel. After sufficient testing, the vessel will make unmanned test runs. This means that a skipper / operator in the control center will steer the vessel manually, having both existing navigational aids and new technology available to ensure safe navigation.

Ensuring safety on this route is a priority for everyone. The following measures have been taken to guarantee the safety and also the recognisability of the unmanned vessel for the waterway user:

  • The vessel will bear the following day mark: a purple cone with the point up.
  • The vessel is equipped with LIDAR technology to scan the environment around the vessel. LIDAR stands for LIght Detection And Ranging and is a technology that determines the distance from an object or surface through the use of laser pulses. Lidar works according to the same principle as radar: a signal is emitted and will be picked up again later, by reflection. The distance to the object or surface is determined by measuring the time that elapses between sending a pulse and receiving a reflection from that pulse. The difference between lidar and radar is that lidar uses laser light while radar uses radio waves.
  • The vessel is equipped with cameras to provide a 360 ° view to the skipper / operator in the control center.
  • The vessel will maintain a maximum speed of 5 km / h.
  • The vessel can be followed through AIS.
  • Speakers and microphones were installed in various places on the vessel, so that the skipper / operator can hear the sounds around the vessel and communicate through the speakers.
  • Communication with the vessel is done through VHF.

Measures to be taken when encountering the unmanned vessel are no different than if you were to encounter a conventional inland vessel:

  • Keep a good distance where possible.
  • Stay on course and do not perform unexpected manoeuvres.
  • When in doubt, contact the skipper / operator.

Communication with the skipper / operator in the control center is the same as in conventional shipping:

  • Trough VHF (on the route Oostende-Nieuwpoort-Diksmuide this is on channel 10)
  • Through cell phone (telephone number: 0032 472 87 20 47)
  • Through speakers and microphones installed on the vessel


De Vlaamse Waterweg nv is also participating in the implementation of AUTOSHIP. AUTOSHIP stands for Autonomous Shipping Initiative for European waters. It is a project with several European partners and it is subsidized by the European Union under the Horizon 2020 program. The aim is to hold two demonstrations with vessels equipped with Smart Shipping technology. The demonstrations focuses on automated vessels as means of transportation. One demonstration takes place in Norway and focuses on Short Sea Shipping. The other demonstration will take place in Flanders and focuses on transport on inland waterways and this with a Pallet Shuttle Barge (Zulu 4) of the Belgian company Blue Line Logistics. The route goes from the lock in Wintam to Willebroek and then back via the Rupel. During this demonstration there will be no crew on board and full control will therefore be carried out by the shore control center. The trajectory is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2022.

The intention is to make optimal use of the results from these 2 tests. After all, they provide us with an enormous amount of information regarding legislation, security, socio-economic factors and cybersecurity, and this will be analysed. With the project we want to deliver a roadmap, standards and methods that can be used by future developers and thus help the commercialization of automated navigation towards a higher level .

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