A pioneering project by Kongsberg and partners uses autonomous vessels to bring transport efficiencies and remove congestion on Europe’s crowded roads

Sailing into a new era of sustainability

Moving goods around Europe is often inefficient, costly and damaging to the environment, and businesses are seeking new and sustainable solutions. A groundbreaking EU-backed project led by KONGSBERG and its partners could provide them.

  • Gunvor Hatling Midtbø
    Vice President, Communications

Autoship Logo Blue.pngEurope’s roads are becoming ever more crowded. Moving goods and freight around the continent is costly in terms of money, time and the environment. Where possible, it makes sense to shift these journeys to water.

This isn’t a new concept, of course. Ships and barges have been used for transport throughout history. But 21st century innovation is opening up new possibilities, particularly in autonomous technology that reduces cost and carbon, and drives pioneering new efficiencies.

Through the Norwegian maritime cluster, KONGSBERG is a world leader in autonomous shipping, and its leading role in this area is about to become even more important. It is working on a groundbreaking new project, Autoship, which will accelerate the development of next generation autonomous technology.

The project is currently in development in collaboration with Norway’s leading research organisation, SINTEF, along with several European partners. The Research Council of Norway is also providing support.

The funding of €20.1 million (NOK 220 million) is being provided by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and is one of the largest grants ever given to Norwegian participants, reflecting the importance of the project.

Eidsvaag Pioner

The other will be a 300-tonne Belgian pallet shuttle barge owned by Blue Line Logistics NV and capable of replacing about 12 conventional freight trucks, effectively taking some 7000 goods vehicles off the road every year. The vessel will be tested in the Flanders region, in and around the city of Antwerp, in partnership with Flemish Waterways.

Jason McFarlane, KONGSBERG’S Research and Innovation Manager in its Integrated Solutions Technology Division is involved in the project. “Autoship is responding to the need to increase multimodal transport and so relieve road congestion. At the end of the day, everything comes down to sustainability,” he says.

Jason McFarlane

Jason McFarlane, Research and Innovation Manager

The focus is on developing and integrating key enabling technologies for autonomy and KONGSBERG has identified these two vessels to demonstrate these. However, the use in each case will be slightly different.

In the case of the inland waterways vessel, the focus will be on developing what is known as level four autonomy. The plan is that the barges will operate unmanned, though more people may be needed on board for safety reasons. There will be a shore control centre involved in monitoring movements that will be able to take control.

This will help to stimulate a revival of river barges for transport. Over the years, we have seen a reduction in the number of people working on these, with a corresponding drop off in the amount of freight carried, meaning the waterways are underutilised.

The infrastructure has run down and needs to be built up again. Also, the existing fleet is old, perhaps 30 or 40 years, and people really don’t want to take jobs on these vessels. Couples and families often operate them and live on them and they can be away from home for periods of time. A lot of younger people don’t relish this kind of employment so there’s a workforce challenge.

However, by introducing this new technology and having autonomous barges, jobs can be shifted to land and to the control centres. They become more office-based, leaving the barges to carry the goods and replace trucks currently on the road.

Autoship Logo White.pngThere will be some parts of this operation that are not planned to be performed autonomously. However, autonomy will be utilised in relation to certain functions, allowing the crew to focus on the duties they need to undertake.

The crossing, docking and mooring should be handled autonomously while the crew is keeping watch, so that they can intervene if it becomes necessary to do so. This is to support safer operations and provide those onboard with support and logistics planning in order to improve operations. The benefits are different to those found in inland waterways, but every bit as relevant.

In both scenarios, the control centres will play a fundamental role. They will have the ability to monitor several vessels, with special attention given to those needing priority support, for instance, when entering a congested area, or where there are potential obstructions or other ships nearby.


The timescale is a highly demanding one. Under the terms of the EU project, commercial autonomous shipping should be capable of being achieved within five years of June 2019, which was when the Autoship programme started.

It is certainly a tight timescale, but KONGSBERG will be demonstrating the performance of its technology on the vessels, with another year and a half after that to reach a level that will allow commercialisation. It may be that after the demonstration more regulatory work needs to be done or there needs to be another level of technology deployed.TFP autoship graophic 03122020.jpg

As well as improving transport effectiveness and catering for a commercial need, the Autoship project will also be a major step forward in terms of sustainability. The systems will eventually learn. As this happens, more optimal operational efficiency is reached.

KONGSBERG has a range of products that are related to vessel performance. Once we are able to integrate these subsystems together with the autonomy system, they will learn and be capable of utilising more and more data covering, for instance, weather and sea conditions.

They will also be able to work out the optimal time for travel and if the vessel should go faster or more slowly. Then they will be able to plan the best routes and support optimal operations.

Pride in efficiency and collaboration

Logistics, too, can be linked in, making the whole supply chain more efficient, and this more intelligent use of waterways will help to encourage traffic off the roads, so further helping to meet sustainability goals.

The Autoship project involves several different business areas within the KONGSBERG Group, taking full advantage of the company’s broad expertise and range of world-leading capabilities.

One example of this participation involves Kongsberg Digital, which is contributing by developing cloud-based communications systems and advanced simulations to test and ensure that the autonomous vessels operate safely and optimally.

Egil Haugsdal

Egil Haugsdal, CEO of Kongsberg Maritime

“The Norwegian maritime cluster, of which KONGSBERG is part, is the world leader in autonomous shipping Now we are further strengthening our position through this Autoship project,” he explains.

It will accelerate the realisation of next generation autonomous ships and create a roadmap for commercialising autonomous shipping in the EU in the next five years.

KONGSBERG will demonstrate that it is possible to remotely operate several ships from land and over large geographical areas. The technology is used in different ways on the vessel to show that the solutions can be applied widely. It is a market with significant potential.Icon.JPG.jpg