Unmanned ships on Flemish waterways by 2030
The Flemish Waterway wants to create the possibility to have unmanned ships on the Flemish waterways by 2030. The agency is to invest 150 million euros in the project.
The Flemish Waterway manages the more than 1 000 kilometers of navigable waterways in Flanders. Two years ago, the agency was founded as a fusion of De Scheepvaart, the manager of the Albert Channel and the Kempen Channels, and its counterpart Waterwegen en Zeekanaal tot De Vlaamse Waterweg, the only Flemish agency with headquarters in Limburg (Hasselt).
The Flemish Waterway is confronted with some huge challenges, both chairwoman Frieda Brepoels and CEO Chris Danckaerts realize. “This year, we have an investment budget of 285 million euros. They will be used for three important projects: the elevation of the bridges over the Albert Channel, the revaluation of the Scheldt area to connect with the north of France, and the Sigma plan, which should prevent flooding in the Scheldt area.”
However, apart from the ‘normal’ maintenance and the management of the Flemish Waterways, there are several other challenges. “Climate change is certainly one of them,” says Brepoels. “On the one hand, it causes drought by the lack of flow, on the other hand, it causes flooding.”
“It is clear, though, that we will have to make some choices,” adds Danckaerts. “The locks of De Blauwe Kei (The Blue Bowlder) in Lommel, for instance, need replacement, and the project is on the agenda, but not for now.”
Still, the Flemish Waterway is looking further forward in the future. “We will make sure that autonomous or unmanned ships will be allowed on the Flemish Waterways by 2030,” Danckaerts continues. “That is why we’re investing 150 million euros is the ‘smart shipping’ project. The money will be used to digitize the waterways so that unmanned ships will be able to navigate using digital maps with waiting and sailing times.
Last year, the Belgian sand transport company De Cloedt Group already launched a regular service with unmanned canal barges, remotely controlled to transport 240 000 cube meters of dredgings on the canals connecting Ypres with Newport. According to the Flemish Waterway (Vlaamse Waterweg), the government agency that authorizes the experiment, at that time a world’s first in inland shipping.
“We are also going to invest in the remotely operating of the locks in three Flemish regions: in Ghent, Mechelen-Willebroek, and Hasselt, from which all the locks will be attended to.”
Today, some 450 of the 1 350 staff members are lockkeepers. Is their job in danger? According to Brepoels, the transition will happen gradually, and the organization will take care of everybody.
In the meantime, CEO Chris Danckaerts is even playing with the idea of creating vineyards on the taluses of the Albert Channel. “Wouldn’t that be great?”