Towards a single market for Smart Shipping

08 February 2024

In the context of the Belgian Presidency of the Council 2024, the Flemish Ministry of Mobility and Public Works is set to host the Smart Shipping Conference on 15-16 May 2024 in Antwerp, Belgium.

The programme will feature plenary speeches, keynote addresses and panel discussions, all set against the backdrop of a unique location: a sailing ship in the port of Antwerp. This gathering will bring together political leaders, policy makers and experts to exchange views and discuss next steps on the future of smart shipping, exploring both its benefits and challenges.

Benefits of smart shipping

Smart shipping offers numerous advantages, including heightened efficiency, cost reduction, enhanced safety, the facilitation of new business models, and a reduced environmental impact. Inland shipping has grappled with a shortage of skippers for several years, resulting in the disappearance of smaller vessels and a reduced usage of smaller waterways. This leads to a reverse modal shift, with the road already dealing with increased congestion while waterways are being used less and less. Automation of vessels can address this issue and revive waterways transport, alleviating pressure on our roads.

Automated shipping contributes to:

  • Enabling new business models and the flow of goods.
  • Increasing transport efficiency on inland waterways.
  • Addressing employee shortages and introducing new profiles to the sector.
  • Greening the sector and and aligning with the objectives of the European Green Deal.

To promote automated shipping, Flanders initiated the Smart Shipping programme.

What is smart shipping

The Smart Shipping programme revolves around 4 pillars:

  • Smart vessels: referring to vessels with a minimal level of automation onboard, ensuring the same safety standards as regular vessels. The degree of automation is not important.
  • Smart infrastructure: highly automated waterway infrastructure operated remotely, enabling safe digital interaction between infrastructure and vessels.
  • Smart data: facilitating smart, seamless, and flexible data sharing between the government and waterway users, following internationally standardized procedures.
  • Smart regulation: regulations that support innovation and forward-looking initiatives while prioritizing safety.

Smart Shipping Leaflet

    Regulatory framework

    To facilitate the smooth and safe testing and development of Smart Shipping and associated technologies, Flanders established a legal framework allowing for greater innovation. The Flanders waterway network serves as a testing ground for automated vessels. A Decree introduced in June 2019 empowers Flemish waterway authorities to grant temporary exemptions on specific rules and regulations for tests involving innovative concepts, including automated systems on ships or ashore. These temporary exemptions cover crew, navigation, technical aspects, equipment, shipping traffic regulation, and onboard and onshore activities. Exemptions, limited to one year, can be renewed for up to five years. They cannot relate to provisions on supervision and enforcement, and to provisions of a criminal nature.

    The next step is to create a legislative framework allowing automated navigation for commercial use. This is not only a Flemish concern, but also an international one as Flemish regulations align with international regulations. Flanders aims to share its knowledge with international organisations to support in researching the impact of Smart Shipping on international legislation and regulations, and therefore launched a scoping exercise in the CCNR and the UNECE.

    Towards a single market for Smart Shipping


    DIWA Masterplan