© Benjamin Friedhoff
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Water transport has long been a good alternative to rail and road, especially in the Netherlands. A major problem, however, is that the fleet of modern shipping vessels that the Dutch are familiar with will not be able to continue sailing in the not too distant future due to a lack of skilled personnel. Scientists from the German University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE) are, however, working on a system of remotely controlled and autonomous inland vessels.

“A milestone on the road to automated shipping,” the scientists declare.

The long journeys that crews make, sometimes lasting several weeks, will no longer be necessary. In principle, skippers will then be able to pilot their ship through rivers and canals from home or from the shipping company’s office by remote control. Assistance systems such as course controllers and collision warning systems should even make it possible to simultaneously steer several vessels.

Lower costs and higher efficiency

Another advantage is that shipowners will have lower costs while the ship’s overall efficiency is enhanced at the same time. “This can significantly improve the competitiveness and future viability of inland shipping”, says Professor Bettar el Moctar, an expert in the field of shipping and offshore technology and director of DST Development Centre for Ship Technology and Transport Systems.

Digital ‘twin’ for test purposes

This is where the three UDE chairs involved want to design a control station with all the necessary technical equipment to operate a real test vessel, which a shipping company will make available to the researchers.

“In order to ensure that the individual components can be developed and tested without any risks and that the skippers can subsequently train without causing accidents, there will be a digital twin of this test ship,” says mechatronics professor Dieter Schramm. To do this, UDE scientists have developed mathematical models and statistical methods.

‘Interaction between man and machine must be maximized’

The researchers are also paying a great deal of attention to the interaction between man and machine, which must be “utmost reliable as possible.”

“Someone who remotely controls a ship must have permanent control. All actions in routine and emergency situations must be supported mechanically. We will implement this on both the virtual and the physical vessel,” says Prof. Dirk Söffker, an expert in the field of control and regulation.

Preliminary tests on the Dortmund-Ems Canal

The first real trial voyage on the water will take place in two and a half years’ time with trained skippers on a test course at the end of the Dortmund-Ems Canal between the port of Dortmund and the Waltrop lock.

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