Inland navigation is an important mode of transport in Europe. Europe disposes of a wide-meshed network of waterways that is highly efficient on the main routes. Large parts of hinterland freight transport to and from ports are covered by inland navigation. Compared to transport by road or rail, there are still considerable capacity reserves. Despite being one of the most efficient modes of transport, inland navigation has seen a steady decline in the modal split (down from 14% in 1991, and to 8% in 2017), although transport performance (in tonne-kilometres) has increased from 400 billion tonne-kilometres in 1991 to 696 billion tonne-kilometres in 2017.
In order to exploit the potential of inland navigation, its structural and technical deficits have to be remedied in order to improve the competitiveness of the entire sector and to meet the requirements imposed by modern logistics.
Small and medium-sized enterprises, research institutions and associated partners are working closely together as part of ZIM’s innovation network Inland Navigation 4.0 as organised by EurA AG. The idea is to pursue innovative approaches and implement them as research and development projects in order to facilitate a more extensive use of inland navigation for the transport of goods. In addition to propulsion technology, sensor technology, automation, navigation and digitisation, the focus areas also include the upstream and downstream logistics chain. As an international network, Inland Navigation 4.0 cooperates closely with partners in Belgium, including De Vlaamse Waterweg NV.
The Maritime Cluster Northern Germany is an associated partner and supports the network professionally, as a cooperation partner at events and by providing contacts to relevant players.
Findings from the network
So far, relevant findings were collected and consolidated, which were confirmed in particular by leveraging the hands-on experience of the Belgian partners:
- Official regulations and guidelines define the road map for future developments in shipping in general and in autonomous ships in particular. Close contact with the relevant bodies is therefore of particular importance for the network. This is where the network's international contacts play, and will continue to play, an important role.
- The vessel fleet requires a considerable degree of overhaul (retro fit), expansion and technological products and solutions for digitisation, networking and automation. The average age of a German inland vessel is 40 years. Replacement with new vessels will therefore only be possible in the long run.
- The human factor will continue to play a special role. This is why human-machine interfaces are an important issue. Moreover, this is true also because there will be a severe shortage of skilled labour in the inland navigation sector in the coming years. In Belgium, there will be demand for 600 inland navigation operators by 2030. Currently, only 6 are trained per year (there are no such figures for Germany).
- Until full autonomy is achieved, there will be a number of intermediate steps that will require adapted innovative products and technologies. However, before products and components for autonomy, partial autonomy and automation of ships can be developed, the framework conditions and business concepts must be identified and developed in advance.
- Digitisation plays a major role in linking shipping with upstream and downstream links in the logistics chain. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to involve port operators, water shipping associations and logistics companies. Data flow automation and data provision would, for example, significantly reduce the workload of inland navigation operators and also open up new business models.
Thus, the positioning of the “Inland Navigation 4.0” network with Belgian partners as an international network offers significant added value for the German network partners. This includes, for example, access to practical experience in the areas of “remote monitoring”, “(partial) autonomy” and smart shipping in the field of inland navigation, as well as a benchmark with a globally leading project in the area of smart shipping (also as a best practice for other stakeholders, for example from politics). In addition, “Inland Navigation 4.0” can access a pre-existing market.