The massive underuse of inland waterways (IWW) in the North Sea region, especially in urban areas, offers opportunities for technological innovation. The average external costs (congestion, accidents, air pollution, climate, noise, etc.) are 3.9 € cents/tkm for inland waterway transport, while this figure is 70% higher for road transport. Nevertheless, urban freight transport by water is currently not economically viable, which has already led to the scrapping of more than 12% of small vessels (CEMT I-II) in the last decade. Crewing costs for these ships can account for up to 60% of total transport costs. Increased automation will therefore be crucial to revitalize a sustainable and economically viable solution for the use of waterways in urban areas.


The AVATAR project aims at the development and deployment of emission-free autonomous shipping units that could provide and establish regular traffic between urban consolidation centers, e. g. by using canals to shift last mile traffic from road to water. The project aims to further explore these challenges by developing, testing and evaluating appropriate technologies and business models for urban autonomous zero-emission inland navigation. In this way, the project unlocks the economic potential of "city ships" and related waterways, increases the available solutions for full cycle automation and develops sustainable supply chain models for urban freight distribution and waste management.

The research project is committed to emission-free, autonomous inland waterway transport and aims to integrate the less frequented inland waterways into freight transport through technological innovations. The project focuses on the traffic between outlaying traffic centers and inner-city traffic hubs, with the emphasis on the distribution of palletized goods with waste recycling. In concrete terms, the modular autonomous vessels will handle passenger and freight traffic in regions with a dense waterway network (canals) through hourly traffic between cities, external transhipment centers and inner-city traffic hubs.

First, the economic potential of city ships and related waterways (<100T) will be developed, followed by an increase in the full automation of inland navigation (including waste recycling) and the development of a sustainable supply chain model for urban freight transport.

By developing and testing the relevant technologies and business models, the logistics sector should be encouraged to introduce these innovative systems in regions with similar geographical opportunities. Pilot cities are Ghent, Leuven, Hamburg and Delft. The data from the AVATAR test will serve policy makers as a basis for the evaluation of different technological pathways to achieve European and regional sustainability goals by 2030 and 2050.


Logistik-Initiative Hamburg

POM Oost-Vlaanderen

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg

Opleidingscentrum voor Hout en Bouw vzw

E. Van Wingen NV

Delft University of Technology