Innovative Freight Transport – Swarm on the Water
1. April 2022 | News, Retail Technology, Visions of Retail

Autonomous transport boats could help relieve road traffic in metropolitan regions

Tim Holzki presents an A-SWARM prototype, still safely located in a warehouse; Copyright: Felix Noak

Powered by electric motor and solar energy, equipped with GPS, laser radar, and radio: Tim Holzki presents an A-SWARM prototype, still safely located in a warehouse. ©Felix Noak

The capital’s rivers and canals are swarming bee-like with bright yellow boats. Autonomous and environmentally friendly, these electric-powered craft are delivering packages along the many waterways of Berlin as well as transporting waste and goods.

This is the vision of the project “A-SWARM. Autonome elektrische Schifffahrt auf Wasserstraßen in Metropolregionen” (Autonomous electric navigation on waterways in metropolitan regions). Two such “swarms” in the yellow color typical of experimental carriers are now lying in Berlin’s Westhafen docks ready for testing.

“We are striving to re-establish the flow of goods via water so as to reduce road traffic and help ease the burden on the environment. Small, flexible, autonomous zero-emission electric boats, known as “swarms,” form the centerpiece of the project,” explains Tim Holzki, M.Sc., of the Department of Design and Operation of Maritime Systems (EBMS) led by Professor Dr.-Ing Gerd Holbach at TU Berlin’s Institute of Land and Sea Transport Systems. “Berlin’s more than 200 kilometers of navigable waterways provide huge free capacity for switching freight transport to water,” says Holzki. “The Westhafen docks with their connections to rail, truck, and car traffic also provide a central hub in Berlin’s inner-city area.” Such a transport system could bring goods into the city and distribute them to many decentralized hubs, possibly with pick-up stations. “From there, self-propelled land-based vans or cargo bikes can be used for the last mile of distribution.”

For retail and logistics, however, speed and cost efficiency are paramount. This is why the project also covers simulations of logistics chains alongside the design of the vehicle concept, load calculations, and propeller arrangement. The autonomous operation of the units saves high personnel costs while also offering a solution to the lack of skilled labor in inland navigation.

Waste collection on water

London and Amsterdam have also already begun experimenting with waterborne transport systems. In Amsterdam, they have started reusing the city’s waterways to remove waste. This reduces the strain caused by waste trucks on the city’s roads and, in particular, bridges. While in London, boats, albeit non-autonomous, are used to transport packages. In addition to parcel distribution, beverage, and pallet logistics, waste transport is also conceivable in Berlin. There is enough below-deck storage space for this.

“Of course, we also need to look at where the boats can dock and set up docking stations for their magnetic coupling system, which walkable or navigable paths already exist on the waterfront, which can still be created, and which locations, if any, could serve as parcel lockers,” explains Holzki.

The A-SWARM project leader is the Potsdam Model Basin (SVA). Further partners such as the BEHALA Berlin port and warehouse company, the University of Rostock and technology specialists Veinland and Infineon are looking at traffic safety and control, LiDAR and radar sensors, GPS receivers, or radio systems for autonomous navigation.

Demonstration launches in summer

Much research is still required and as a result the two A-SWARM boats will undertake demonstration trips in the summer. A digital test field for innovative and networked city logistics beyond Berlin’s borders is also already in the works. The “DigitalSOW” project is investigating the possibilities for automated inland vessels along the Oder-Spree Waterway (SOW). This route is to be equipped with digital sensor technology for real-time recording of traffic situations, the condition of the waterway, and boat positions. TU Berlin’s Department of Design and Operation of Maritime Systems (EBMS) is also involved in the project, which is being funded by the German Federal Ministry of Digital Affairs and Transport with a total of 4.2 million euros until mid-2023 and is based at the technology company Alberding GmbH. “The project consortium is looking at the entire transportation process, including automated navigation on water.” So, quite a lot of water will have to pass beneath the bridges of the Spree until we achieve a situation where only “the last mile” has to be covered on Berlin’s roads.

Source: Technische Universität Berlin

Tags: GPS, artificial intelligence, automatization, climate protection, logistics, supply chain, technology
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