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River trains will lower costs on Europe’s inland waterway operations

Technological advances could see the development of river trains on the River Rhine. Credit: Shutterstock.

Regulators of European inland waterways are evaluating a system originally developed for truck automation to operate autonomous vessels on its rivers and canals.

The system being evaluated will use a manned lead vessel with unmanned, or reduced crews, on the following ships, which are digitally tethered to the flotilla leader. It is a system that can reduce costs and emissions, and ultimately could compete with trucks on some routes.

Digitalization has brought new technologies that can ultimately reduce the cost of transportation and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing costs would be important to any company, but that is particularly important for inland shipping operators that have seen their costs escalate over the past 10 years. A 2009 regulation to phase-out single-hulled barges carrying hazardous liquids and replace them with double-hulled vessels over a 10-year period went into full effect at the beginning of 2019.

Finding methods to cut costs has, therefore, become more imperative, but in addition to the costs the use of shallow draught single-hulled vessels during the low water events last year allowed cargo to keep moving on the upper Rhine where deeper draught double hulls could not go. That option would no longer be available to operators this year, but with the development of automated vessels there could be a solution – smaller vessels operating in a digital train.

Before automation can happen there first must be changes in the regulations governing the use of autonomous systems on inland waterways. Regulatory changes of that type are enacted through the Commission for the Control and Navigation of the Rhine (CCNR). Regulations introduced that impact the Rhine are normally introduced through the European Union (EU), even though each country is its own jurisdiction and could, in theory, enact its own regulations. In practice this does not happen.

Automated systems for river barges would logically be thought to resemble those systems being developed for use on deep-water ships. Although river barges are considered by many to be closely related to ocean shipping, the confined space of rivers and canals and the risk of hitting bridges, make the use of truck automation technology more compatible for inland waterways.

One view of automating trucks carrying freight envisages a lead lorry operated by a human with a convoy of unmanned trucks following. An EU-funded project, Novimar, that started in June 2017, is following on the same principle for barges used to transport cargo from ships at port into the European hinterland using inland waterways.

The Novimar project has 22 partners including logistics operators, industry, public bodies and research organizations from seven EU and two associated countries, with the project coordinated by the Netherlands Maritime Technology Foundation (NMTF).

“Overcoming barriers between transport modes as they exist today will hugely increase the economic viability of waterborne transport. The ever-increasing size of vessels, driven by economies of scale, makes it hard for waterborne transport chains to reach into Europe’s smaller waterways network and into some of the most populated urban areas. At the same time, we see a steady decline in the total amount of smaller vessels due to relatively high operational costs,” said project coordinator Oscar Lauf of the NMTF.

Lauf believes these challenges can be solved by introducing the vessel train concept, which is also known as “platooning.”

It was a theme that has been picked up by the influential CCNR at the recent Maritime Autonomous Regulatory Working Group conference when CCNR Administrator Benjamin Boyer told the assembled audience of maritime experts that the European inland waterways are not regulated by the International Maritime Organization, but through a number of national and international agreements.

Boyer said that a number of pilot projects would be tested and that the “objective is to gain experience that will create safer inland waterways.”

As with trucks there are still some issues to overcome, said Boyer, including dealing with onboard fires and if there is a collision, who is liable and how will the accident be dealt with and by who. As these issues arise during the testing phase it is expected that solutions will be found. Until then the automation of transport on inland waterways will be phased in through trials of different levels of automation.

Trials will begin with steering assistance then move in stages to vessel command, monitoring and responding to the navigational environment and performance of dynamic navigational tasks.

The Novimar project is expected to conclude its development work by 2021.