Platform for the implementation of a future inland navigation action programme

R&D roadmap for IWT

Executive summary

Across the four thematic PLATINA3 work packages “Market”, “Fleet”, “Jobs & Skills” and “Infrastructure” four horizontal topics are distinguished:

•             Climate resilience

•             Climate change mitigation and air quality improvement

•             Digitalisation

•             Modal shift

Climate resilience is understood as readiness to deal with worst case scenarios resulting from a progressively changing climate. Here, direct impacts, e.g. caused by droughts leading to low-water conditions or sudden events like severe precipitation leading to flooding can play an important role. In addition, indirect impacts in particular in association with water scarcity have to be considered too. E.g. the extraction of water for agricultural purposes caused by insufficient precipitation may result in conflicts of interests between the different stakeholders of waterways what for the inland waterway transport (IWT) sector has to become prepared, demanding an integrative approach involving all relevant stakeholders. This topic and scope concerns not only the rivers and free flowing sections on the Rhine-Danube corridors, but also canal waterway networks in Europe. Therefore, the whole TEN-T waterway network is concerned and needs to be addressed.

In PLATINA3, climate resilience was mainly addressed in the Tasks 2.2 and 4.1 to conclude and recommend on the actions required to adapt vessels (Task 2.2) as well as the infrastructure (Task 4.1).

The topic of climate mitigation and air quality improvement concerns the transition to low or zero-carbon intensity energy usage by inland vessels and the reduction of the air pollutant emissions (NOx, PM) of vessels. This was addressed in PLATINA3 Tasks 1.5, 2.1, 2.5, 2.6, 2.7, 3.1 and 4.2. In Task 1.5 it was concluded that for a successful modal shift from road towards inland waterway transport, the vessels need to be competitive with the emission performance of low/zero-emission trucks, which are expected to become operational in the near future. In Tasks 2.1, 2.5-2.7 detailed conclusions and recommendations have been made in terms of the actions needed for the fleet to enable this transition. In Task 3.1 attention was paid to the requirements relating to jobs & skills in terms of the competences of the workforce. In Task 4.2 attention was paid to the energy supply infrastructure along waterways and in ports, which also requires a drastic development to be able to supply the vessels with low/zero- carbon energy.

The topic of digitalisation is not a goal by itself but an important supporting development required to remain competitive and to improve the connectivity to ports, other transport modes and the clients (e.g. to keep the direct costs low and to allow synchromodal solutions). As was made clear in Task 1.3, digitalisation as well as digital integration is crucial to increase the modal share of IWT and to be able to significantly contribute to the modal shift goals as presented in the EU Green Deal. Automation may also support navigation in becoming even safer and more efficient. In addition, automation contributes to overcoming difficulties associated with the shortage of personnel by increasing the attractiveness of working in the IWT sector. The latter became clear from Tasks 2.3, 3.3 and 4.3.

Last but not least there are specific RD&I recommendations from the tasks on achieving modal shift and increasing the use of inland waterways. However, it shall be noted that the modal shift opportunities do heavily rely on the first three topics. Without climate resilience, vessels will not be able to sail economically, while green vessels and digitalisation will be required by the future clients. For modal-shift, specific RD&I actions are required and have been identified in Tasks 1.1 and 1.2 and partially in Task 1.3. They discus for example the actions needed to unlock the potential of new markets, or the implementation of new loading units and transhipment systems.

The following sections present the main conclusions on the identified RD&I topics which are not yet addressed in the Horizon Europe (HEU) Working Programme 2021-2024. Therefore, these identified topics are considered the PLATINA3 recommendations for RD&I topics to be addressed in the upcoming calls of the Horizon Europe working programme for the next years (2025-2027).

The focus of this report is on the recommendations for further research to be programmed in Horizon Europe. It needs to be stressed that in parallel also attention is needed to support the deployment of innovations, for example on European level by means of calls in CEF and Innovation Fund.

Climate resilience

Relating to climate resilience two RD&I topics have been identified (based on the work in WP2“Fleet”) in relation to fleet adaptation. These are focussing on raising the climate resilience of inland vessel designs and improved forecasting of climatic conditions.

Research on inland vessel designs with a higher degree of climate resilience can be supported by a series of RD&I efforts. This concerns the development of new materials, new bow thrusters, adaptation of existing vessels, research on framework conditions for vessel design, impact of new energy carriers and zero-emission solutions on vessel draft in view of low water events, prediction of ship operation and model tests.

In addition, RD&I efforts are also needed with respect to the provision of reliable data on and forecasting of climatic conditions, as a precondition for the proper retrofitting and design of inland waterway vessels. Future vessel adaptation measures shall thereby not negatively affect the operation of vessels at normal navigation conditions, e.g. increase the energy demand during normal conditions.

All research topics mentioned above as well as the ones to follow below become obsolete if a functioning infrastructure is neglected as it is the backbone of a working inland waterway transportation system. With respect to climate change and infrastructure, some research and development has been carried out. However, this is fragmented and mostly on a local level, e.g. the KLIWAS project for the German waterways, Climate Resilient Networks for the Dutch waterways or the last three Horizon Europe projects CRISTAL, PLOTO, ReNEW. A comprehensive picture with a common climate modelling basis is still missing, e.g. for the Danube region as highlighted in the PLATINA 3 Stage Event 3. This calls for one big or a few comprehensive climate change projects on European level involving all relevant representatives of member states concerned, which shall be continuously initiated. One or two small projects are considered not sufficient at all, taking into account the different geographical, technological and regulative conditions present in Europe on the TEN-T waterways. Hence, the RD&I items for the infrastructure side to be considered relate to: 

  • creating a data basis containing short and long term climate change projections,
  • further development of integrative planning procedures for inland waterway infrastructure projects,
  • development of innovative methods for waterway maintenance and management, and
  • development of innovative methods for waterway surveying and measuring.

These topics are described in detail in the report. The approach has to be a multi-disciplinary one considering integrative planning in relation to navigation, the environment as well as other water users like industries with a need for water extraction or even land borne activities having an impact on the water regime of a river, e.g. sealing of wider areas impacting the ground water level or sudden discharge of rain into a river. PLATINA3 recommends therefore to launch a large integrated EU project to cover these elements taking into account the various types of waterways, stakeholders and disciplines.

Climate change mitigation and air quality improvement

Related to climate change mitigation and air quality improvements, twelve RD&I topics have been identified (stemming from all four work packages). Already some projects being currently implemented are being supported by Horizon Europe, such as SYNERGETICS and RH2IWER, while the Work Programme for 2023 also included calls for further development in this field (see also PLATINA3 Deliverable 2.1).

Clarity on a regulatory level is necessary for shipowners to take further steps towards energy transition, as well as for energy suppliers and related stakeholders on corridor level. Currently, several technologies of different maturity levels exist and it is not defined yet which will be dominant and approved for the next decades by regulations. This creates reluctance to invest.

There are specific subjects for further research identified, which have not yet been addressed in Horizon Europe 2021-2024, both on technological level but also in the field of standardisation, as well as on regulatory and policy level. Moreover, a mind shift will be needed among stakeholders, as well as setting the competence standards for education and training of personnel to work with the new energy carriers and technologies. In this respect there is a big need for more demonstration and pilot projects in this field. Projects and studies are needed for the further development of energy carriers like methanol, hydrogen and batteries as well as Onshore Power Supply (OPS).

As the impact of newly built vessels on the emission performance of the entire inland fleet is marginal, the adaptation of existing vessels – the so-called legacy fleet – also needs to be in the scope of research and demonstration projects. This includes also social and cultural aspects which may influence retrofitting opportunities such as the market structure and the demography of vessel owners. A range of specific research elements from the side of energy infrastructure has been identified in WP4 of PLATINA3. Last but not least the policy and regulatory framework needs dedicated attention to be brought in such a state that the use of new energy carriers is enabled. It shall aim at incentivising the use of clean energies, and provision of a competitive edge to the frontrunners in the inland waterway transport market.


Related to digitalisation, some 17 RD&I topics have been identified (stemming from the work packages 2, 3 and 4). A large share of the recommended RD&I activities addresses the automation of vessels as well as the waterway infrastructure and ports. This not only concerns the technical development, but also the regulatory development and competence standards for the human capital. In addition, digitalisation plays a key role in the integration of IWT in supply chains which carry out transportation tasks. Horizon 2020 projects such as AUTOBARGE and AUTOSHIP provide first insights to build upon.

Synchromodality brings added value, also in case of disruptions of logistic chains, while automation brings more flexibility to operations, fleet management and supply chain integration of IWT solutions into transport management platforms. This shall help to align all transport modes (focused on their particular segments) and to work towards future collaboration and coexistence rather than strong competition, where IWT was consequently losing its market share. This requires more attention to communication and exchange of information using novel technologies, while safeguarding privacy, data protection and cyber security. It requires also collaborative business models, joint investments and strong international cooperation (e.g. port community and exchange systems). Actions are needed with regard to automation and robotization. Enhancements and developments shall be carried out with respect to new situational awareness systems for multiple functions, combining physical and digital assets. Moreover, developments of advanced solutions and systems to support the progressive automation of nautical services for vessels are needed, as well as cargo handling and other port operations. Attention is needed on improved solutions for human-machine interactions, including the application of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, big data and augmented reality. This also requires the development of future-proof regulations to allow and support the successful uptake of these innovations.

Modal shift / increased use of inland waterways

Relating to modal shift, four RD&I topics have been identified (stemming from WP1 Market). The project SEAMLESS is already funded in Horizon Europe and addresses the link with automation and integration with ports and other modes. Moreover, the Horizon Europe Work Programme 2023 includes a call for projects “developing small, flexible, zero-emission and automated vessels to support shifting cargo from road to sustainable Waterborne Transport” which addresses several research needs identified in PLATINA3.

Further attention needs to be paid to new markets which can be unlocked for IWT. Here, as an example,  the energy transition provides an opportunity, as RD&I is recommended to investigate and showcase how IWT can be developed to transport alternative energy as well as (captured or green) CO2 as well as project cargo for wind turbines and other innovative technologies. There are other transport flows with market potential for IWT as well, such as continental cargo of palletised goods, recycling materials and also in city logistics with a revival of local canal networks. It is necessary to conduct (pilot) projects to analyse the viability of such new transport assignments using IWT. The implementation and analysis of such (pilot) projects deserve the necessary funding to gain knowledge and identify and address economic, financial, technical and regulatory obstacles and challenges, which need to be overcome to tap these new markets.

An overarching challenge and task in this context involve the creation of awareness. The competitiveness of IWT could be further strengthened by the development and implementation of communication and marketing activities displaying the advantages of IWT. Lessons should be learned and communication and marketing concepts should be further improved. It should be investigated how this can be done in the best way and which strategy and means/IT tools can best be used for this. This can all be brought together in a comprehensive roadmap for modal shift also considering the greening and digitalisation aspect, i.e. the development of a roadmap for IWT-related modal shift and decarbonisation and integration in supply chains. It needs to discuss the type loading units to build on, the preferable transport modes to use for specific transportation tasks, the infrastructures to be developed, and incentives to be put in place with a time horizon towards 2050. Without such a roadmap, there is a risk that too many technologies will be developed in parallel (and many of them abandoned later) and that the overall (policy) objectives are not reached.

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