Barges navigating canals with no captain on board. It may sound like science-fiction, but it is the reality in Flanders, thanks to Seafar. In their futuristic command centre in Antwerp, CEO Louis-Robert Cool talks about how Seafar approaches this, how unique it is, and the links with space technology.

Operating vessels from a Shore Control Center

It all started with a paradox. Europe and Flanders want to shift cargo from road to water, but in Europe, there’s a lack of captains, and more and more young people are no longer in the mood for the job. Louis-Robert Cool, who moved to Antwerp from West-Flanders and became quickly passionate about the dynamic of the port, developed an idea. “What if we could operate vessels from ashore? I started Seafar to see if this idea was viable. A major accelerator for our enterprise was the opportunity the Port of Antwerp offered us. They let us use a ship to test our technology and let it grow to maturity. That way, we could demonstrate our solution to potential clients. And our ship metaphorically sailed off.”

The future of shipping

Today Seafar employs 25 people who navigate about ten ships from its futuristic Shore Control Center in Antwerp. You could call it the future of shipping. “We believe that we can attract a new generation of captains with our system”, says Louis. “First of all, our captains can have a day job because they’re not aboard while navigating the ship. In our Shore Control Center, they have a 360°-view of the ship and surroundings, and they have a great deal of data at their disposal, thanks to our system. Indeed, they don’t hear the engines, and they don’t feel the wind, but still, it feels very intuitive, especially for captains who grow up with tablets and gaming.”

Shipping as a service

There are many advantages for shipping lines, too, explains Louis. “Thanks to our system, the barges can sail semi-automatically. Only when passing critical points like locks do our captains take over control. Once the ship is docked, we plug out. That way, a shipping line only pays for effective working hours and not for waiting times ashore. Through constant interaction between captains and our software developers, our system keeps getting better, which is beneficial for all. Our captains can monitor more than one ship at the same time. Thanks to our solution, shipping lines have reasons enough to invest in a new fleet and contribute to new mobility.”

Space technology

To navigate a ship remotely, Seafar uses a highly accurate positioning system: RTK (Real-Time Kinematic). It enables them to position a ship with a 10-centimetre precision. “Another link with space technology is our communication”, says Louis. “To make the correct decisions during sailing, we need stable communication between ship and shore. We do that by combining 4G, 5G and satellite communication. It’s a result of a collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).”

Unique in the world

Flanders is, at this moment, the only region worldwide where commercial ships can be navigated remotely. “It gives us a head start”, says Louis. “In other countries, legislation is beginning to change. We’re getting ready to sell our technology and become a European top 3 player in the long term.”

Interested in more stories like this? Discover Verhaert, Antwerp Space, QinetiQ and Helicus