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Use Case

Surface Vessel


Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) are perhaps the most visible smart shipping applications to date in the Netherlands. Several developers of USVs and USV technology are commercially successful in the Netherlands, and various dredging and offshore instruction companies in the Netherlands are already starting to use USVs in their daily operation.

In the context of this roadmap, we define USVs as small vessels (<20 m for inland vessels, <24 m for seagoing vessels). Unmanned Surface Vessels are, as the name implies, not equipped for the carriage of people, so small autonomous ferries are not meant in this sense. Ferries have their own challenges and different market drivers, which are described in the inland ferry use case.

Although a lot of USV technology is developed and used in a military context, this roadmap focuses on civilian applications of USVs.

Vision for 2030

By 2030, the use of USVs with a high degree of automation will be commonplace in various industries. The period between 2020 and 2025 will see a fast pace of technical and regulatory development, allowing the full operational use of USVs in a variety of roles before 2025, both at sea and on inland waters. In the years after 2025, USVs will find more roles and increasingly replace crewed vessels in these roles, as well as supplementing crewed vessels performing tasks which are too dangerous for ships with crew on board.


By 2030, humans will still be in the loop for supervision of these vessels, but in many cases this will be restricted to monitoring their safe operation from shore control centres, only directly intervening in case of contingencies.


In the coming years, the use of USVs will provide several important benefits to their users.


In inshore and offshore survey and inspection tasks, small USVs will progressively replace much larger crewed vessels, whose dimensions are governed by the need to safely carry and sustain the vessel crew. Without the need to safeguard the wellbeing of people on board, USVs can be employed in much harsher weather conditions, increasing the number of workable days and allowing safer use in difficult areas like surf zones and near infrastructure like windmills and platforms. For many of these operations, working with USVs will cheaper, safer and more sustainable compared to crewed vessels.


While survey and inspection applications lead the way, USVs will also increasingly find use in surveillance, search and rescue and support roles in emergency response. Here USVs will perform tasks which are too dangerous for crewed vessels to perform.


USVs will also find application in small scale city logistics, where various niches allow profitable use of autonomous USVs in garbage collection, moving building materials, cleaning canals.


Key challenges

USVs are more or less present since the introduction of radio-controlled toyboats decades ago. As sensor prices decreased and sensor capabilities increased, these simple platforms evolved from toys or armature usage to professional vessels with control far beyond the line of sight and professional applications. USVs are still developing technically, but technology is not the largest challenge. The key challenges for USVs are found in legislation, liability, skills and shore control.


As maritime legislation is built upon the paradigm in which a crew is present on-board, this barrier has to be eliminated in short-term. USVs do not need a crew on-board by the nature of their design , in fact many USVs do not even have room to transport persons in a safe way. More than for other smart ships, this use case demands swift change of current legislations to allow for sailing unmanned.


Sailing unmanned does not automatically mean sailing autonomous. Currently we see a human in the loop, controlling or monitoring, in all USV developments. What skillset should this operator have and what is the legal position of the operator when sailing one or more USVs from a shore control center far away or even across borders? A legal and educational framework will have to be developed in accordance with the adaptation of legislation. We also need a clear view on enforcement: how to organize inspections of the vessel, determine its owner and its operator and identification of the responsible person in case of an accident.


Knowledge Base

Want to know more about Unmanned Surface Vessels? Go to our knowledge base.

2021 2024 2030
1Skills & Industry Acceptance
Create and maintain positive image of smart shipping
Establish skills requirements for USV operators
Availability of IT integrators in maritime sector
New STCW standards and shifting responsibilities
2Liability & Insurance
Innovating in a risk-averse industry
Risk and liability distribution
Vessel captain/operator not in same country as the vessel
Risk and liability contract models
3Implementation & Market Uptake
Development functionality for various processes requires customization
4Waterways, Locks & Bridges
Determine functional requirements for interaction with smart ships
(Offshore) Charging of USVs 
Functional requirements for interaction with USVs
In-port connectivity and coverage
Standardization of digital port infrastructure
Facilitate extensive experiments incl. Remote operations
Objective safety requirements
System certification
Adjust manning requirements in inland shipping
Align national and international legislation for uniformity
7Navigation & Guidance
Functional requirements of navigation systems
Visibility of the USV
Journey and route planning systems
Situational awareness and obstacle detection
Collision avoidance systems
Development of multi-vessel operational techniques for efficient use of USVs
8Ship Internal Systems
Functional requirements for monitoring and control of ship systems
Determine requirements for Rescue of USVs in case of risky situation and salvage of USV
9Communication & Security
Functional requirements of communication systems
Ship position information systems
Ship-ship and ship-shore communication protocols
Connectivity for smart shipping on the North Sea
10Remote & Shore Control
Functional requirements for Shore Control Centres (SCC)
Multi-vessel control (SCC)