Alewijnse and SEAFAR join forces to contribute to the development of autonomous shipping

In a new partnership, Alewijnse will work with SEAFAR on the integration of its innovative on-board remote control systems and the optimisation of technical maintenance and support.

Alewijnse and SEAFAR join forces to contribute to the development of autonomous shipping
Photo: Alewijnse

In the future, captains will work ashore instead of on board the vessels they command. From a control center, each captain will direct several ships at once, which may be sailing on different canals and rivers. Only a few sailors will be on board, for maintenance, docking, loading and unloading. Should an emergency arise, a helmsman on the bridge can take temporary control of the ship.

Technology and services company SEAFAR has already made this semi-autonomous sailing a reality by controlling ten ships from a control room in Antwerp, and is planning similar facilities in Namur and Dordrecht. The company aims to have thirty new and existing ships operational, in both inland and coastal shipping, by the end of the year. To advance its plans, SEAFAR is joining forces with Alewijnse to take steps towards the development of innovative systems that will connect with electrical equipment on board to enable remote maintenance and other interventions direct from the control centers. 

SEAFAR's captains direct ships remotely from a control room. They steer up to three ships at a time, 80% goes autonomous, with only a few crew remaining on board. The major advantage, according to CEO and founder Louis-Robert Cool, is that:

"The captain can do his job in eight hours, and then another captain takes over his shift, and so on. Also, the navigation and maneuvering can be done in a very efficient way through the application of innovative techniques such as artificial intelligence, which can predict behavior using algorithms, and machine learning, which can identify objects and the surrounding environment using sensors, in order to optimise sailing behavior. These are unique techniques for inland navigation that, by combining different elements, form an efficient whole."

As a system integrator Alewijnse offers a comprehensive package of technical solutions that includes full electrical installations, systems for energy distribution, generation and propulsion, process automation, audio, video & ICT and systems for safety, navigation and communication.

Louis-Robert Cool continues: "Our cooperation is still very new, but our views of the future of the market are the same and we can reinforce each other in a complementary way. Our vision of modernizing the current fleet in the Netherlands is the same as well. Together we would like to expand our network and enter into partnerships in the Dutch market. We are keen to link up on new projects with Alewijnse, to take on several at the same time and to optimise the service we provide to our customers, in order to make more vessels #SEAFARReady! for the future."

Tom Milder, COO at Alewijnse adds:

"Through our partnership with SEAFAR, we will demonstrate just how well equipped our systems are for emerging technologies like semi-autonomous sailing. We are already experienced with this technology and the specialist equipment needed for it such as remote systems, onboard cameras to provide real-time situational awareness, GPS equipment programmed with emergency scenarios such as holding position, and image and voice communication equipment."

Because we work with major shipyards and vessel owners, we have an extensive network, especially for the construction of new inland, cargo and coastal vessels. We also have extensive knowledge and experience in system design, the installation of electrical installations and providing after-sales service. Many ships have Alewijnse equipment that we maintain, and this service can be easily extended for SEAFAR systems. More and more ships are installing this equipment."

According to Cool, semi-autonomous sailing is the answer to the current problems in inland navigation:

"On the one hand, the road to obtaining a license is not an easy one, but on the other hand there is a huge shortage of crew. By 2030 it is estimated that the sector will be short of around 6000 people. By implementing new technologies, it is possible to change the working practices and make the job of captain not only more attractive, but also increase the resources available because sailing has become more efficient. There is also a business case for boosting inland navigation, because it frees up more capital for investments into sustainable technology."

Milder adds:

“The major advantages of unmanned sailing are saving costs, the possibility of 24/7 sailing while observing the work and rest time regulations, and increasing safety. It also improves the working conditions of the captains, who can now do their job in a comfortable, dry and warm environment, with screens in front of them and seated in comfort, and with attractive working hours and travel distances. In addition, the local regulations are favorable. In Belgium they are already well advanced in developing permits, especially in Flanders, and in the Netherlands things are starting to move as well."