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Project F.A.S.T. officially launched with handing over of European subsidy money

On 17 November, F.A.S.T. – Fieldlab Autonomous Sailing Technology was officially launched. The boat that will play the leading role in the unique autonomous sailing project was presented. Over the next two years, Vlissingen harbour will be used as a testing ground for a remotely controlled vessel. The project is a collaboration between various parties, including Damen Naval, Province of Zeeland, Municipality of Vlissingen, HZ University of Applied Sciences, TU Delft, and local companies, such as Kloosterboer, Vlaeynatie and Zeeland Boten.

Because of coronavirus restriction measures, the event was organised outside, under the large Schelde crane on the Jan Weugkade, behind the Machinefabriek in Vlissingen. During his welcome speech, Damen Naval’s Director of Naval Sales Support Richard Keulen said that the location was actually very appropriate. “We are standing here surrounded by a lot of history, with the old Schelde crane, the former naval ship and museum Mercuur and the old Machinefabriek,” he said. “But today is all about this little ship that is being presented. FAST is an appropriate name, because developments are moving very fast and it is nice to see how our region can get involved in projects like this.”

Richard praised the cooperation between the Province, the Municipality of Vlissingen, the HZ and TU Delft and the business community. “What we have here is actually a golden ecosystem between government, knowledge institutions, and research and development. There is a lot of capacity in Vlissingen. North Sea Port is actually a maritime ‘brain-port’ and we are proud that we can use Damen’s three local disciplines for this project. We have the yachts of Damen Yachting, the high-quality repairs of Damen Shiprepair, and Damen Naval with the naval construction, which is innovation in itself. We are proud to contribute to this project and to the future of autonomous sailing.”

Project leader Jochem Nonhebel proudly presented the main protagonist of the F.A.S.T. project: the Damen Polycat built at Damen in Hardinxveld-Giessendam in 1990. The vessel will be refurbished and converted in the coming months. The two diesel engines will be replaced by two electric engines that will be at least as powerful as the current ones. Cameras, sensors, radar, Lidar, GPS equipment, wind and speed gauges are also being installed; these will replace the eyes and ears of the helmsman.

“This project is just the beginning of much bigger developments. Ultimately, we want to develop this technology in such a way that we can also implement it on large ships. For example, automatically mooring a ship and avoiding objects,” said Jochem. “In a complex location such as here in Vlissingen’s inner harbour, you have to deal with large and small ships, swimmers and other water users. It’s not easy to identify all the objects in the water, especially for a computer, so we are going to add all kinds of technology to the boat. For safety reasons, there will always be someone on board to make sure that intervention can take place if necessary.”

The F.A.S.T. project received a grant of €1,174,846 from the European ERDF programme as part of the European Union’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The condition is that the project contributes to a green, digital and resilient recovery of the South of the Netherlands and that it stimulates innovation within the SME sector within the region. In addition, the project has also received contributions from the national government and the participating parties. Provincial Executive Harry van der Maas handed over the cheque for the European subsidy money to Jochem Nonhebel.

“I am proud to be able to hand over this cheque. The Province of Zeeland is very impressed with all the parties who are working on this ‘living lab’, this testing ground in the harbour of Vlissingen. A lot of energy has been put into it by all parties and I would particularly like to thank Damen as the main driving force behind the project,” said Mr Van der Maas.

He added that three things are very important to the Province: clean transport, cooperation between the business community and knowledge institutes, and liveability and accessibility. “The aim is that this boat will sail between the station and the city centre to transport people arriving by train or Fast Ferry to the city centre. Before that happens, a lot of testing will be needed and it will take about two years, but I am convinced that these parties will make this a successful project.”

Jochem concluded his presentation by saying, “This is the starting point of the project and we are proud to share it here. And of course we are curious to see where it will all lead, so we will keep everyone informed of developments on a regular basis.” The F.A.S.T. ship does not yet have a name. Therefore, together with the Zeeland ‘Huis van de Techniek’ [a local technical education development organisation], a contest is being held at primary schools in and around Vlissingen.

This project is made possible by:

From left to right: Joost van Damme (Onilio), Richard Keulen (Damen Naval), Micha Beckers (Hogeschool Zeeland), Vincent Wegener (Captain AI), Harry van der Maas (Executive member of the Province of Zeeland), Jochem Nonhebel (Damen Naval)
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