Expediters of the Danube
Trading Line Group is charting new waters for Romania’s future in remote piloting. We find out more with CEO, Paul Ivanov
Writer: Phoebe Harper | Project Manager: Eddie Clinton
Romania lies at the crossroads of European transport. Home to the mighty river Danube, the continent’s second largest river is the lifeblood of riverine trade across Southeastern Europe, originating in the Black Forest mountains of western Germany and winding through 10 countries to the ports of the Black Sea coastline.
The port of Constanƫa lies at the nexus of this dynamic trade environment, as the hub of Romania’s maritime connections with transportation routes connecting the region with the Black Sea, western Europe and the Middle East.
Trading Line Group (Trading Line) is the shipping company at the vanguard of efficient, premium cargo expediting along the breadth of the Danube. Today, Trading Line is playing a pivotal role in Romania’s shipping landscape by advancing the company’s agenda for remote piloting, heralding a new age of shipping for the industry.
When Paul Ivanov, CEO at Trading Line, first turned his attention to the shipping industry in 2011, he was entering the space as a complete novice.
“At that time, I knew nothing – I had no idea what a winch was! I was an IT guy and a network engineer,” he recalls.
Prior to this, it was during his tenure as a councillor for the Deputy Chamber of the Romanian parliament where a business proposition prompted Ivanov’s segway into the shipping supply chain.
Despite his shipping inexperience, Ivanov’s entrepreneurial background served him in good stead, enabling him to champion the recovery of what was then a struggling shipping logistics company.
This spirit of astute decision making has been fostered in Ivanov since childhood.
“I started my entrepreneurial life at 16, when my father bought me my first computer,” he shares. In a savvy business move, a young Ivanov began selling internet network access in 2001 to the neighbours within his apartment building. By 2007, his network had spread to half of the city and approximately 35,000 people. After selling the company in 2008, Ivanov had made his first million Euros, aged just 24.
Today, Ivanov oversees Trading Line’s operations and its monopoly over shipping logistics on the Danube, advancing the company forwards as it seeks to modernise operations and retain its competitive advantage as a shipping partner of choice.
“By 2012, we had recovered enough to start buying our first vessels and began to develop the company. Since then, we have continued to buy new vessels every two years,” he says.
To date, the company’s fleet entails 26 dry cargo vessels, including 10 barges and two pushers, with an additional four tank vessels and further expansion on the horizon. Trading Line has the most modern fleet on the Danube, with high capacity and efficiency vessels, endowed with engines complying to the latest pollution regulations. “When investing in new vessels, we take a long-term view, with a focus on the sustainability of our transport solutions. We do not have an opportunistic approach; we do not take into consideration bargains on old polluting ships,” says Mr. Ivanov.
Given the IT background of the owner, Trading Line is a digital disruptor of the shipping industry, with an in-house developed IT platform integrating all fleet and company processes, unmatched by other players in the industry.
Meanwhile, the company’s CEO continues as a proud student of the ‘Blue MBA’ Executive programme at the Copenhagen Business School, where under the leadership of esteemed Programme Director Irene Rosberg – voted by All About Shipping as the Number One Woman in Shipping – he continues to learn and apply modern management theories and shipping economics.
“We are in the final stages of defining an International Consortium for a Remote Piloting Centrum”
BREATHING NEW LIFE INTO AN OLD FLEET
Trading Line’s key differentiator is that the company boasts the youngest fleet on the Danube, built in 2008 and seeks to further modernise inland vessels after considerable analysis of market behaviour.
“In this supply chain, you don’t have much market innovation. You have actors who have been doing business in this area for years and in a very bureaucratic way,” says Ivanov. It is here where Trading Line makes its difference, by bringing a new, modern energy.
“We have introduced new novelty things, for instance with how we began to implement automated email noticing. We have been pioneering changing the behaviour of our clients on one side, and on the other side through the suppliers,” he tells us.
Indeed, although the Danube market hosts a worldwide fleet, Romania lags behind in new vessels, with the majority of its operational ships having been constructed between 1981-1990.
“The fact that we have so many old barges can be a real challenge.”
This, combined with the significant expense of labour, represent the two key hurdles that Trading Line endeavours to overcome.
“Our business model is that we need to have two key elements – firstly, the speed of the fleet, and secondly, the performance,” Ivanov elaborates.
In a bid to increase and improve both speed and performance, Trading Line set about the ambitious task of covering the length of the Danube on a data collecting mission. By so doing, the company implemented a database of all loading and unloading destinations, ranking each place in terms of speed. Each operating place was effectively profiled so that captains are aware of the location, its facilities and the moorings available.
The company therefore effectively marked its profits by improving efficiency, reducing the duration of load times and therefore the cost of labour.
“We optimised the fleets based on where we can load quickly. In turn, we wrote it into our contracts with clients that they would need to be able to discharge quickly,” Ivanov explains. The plan worked, as clients soon became willing to pay a premium for the speed and efficacy of Trading Line’s services.
“For a competitor of ours, it takes one month to take a vessel from Constanƫa to Serbia and back. We do that journey in five days.”
Aside from the vessels themselves, Trading Line can also be hampered by aging port facilities, such as the dated floating cranes available at the Constanƫa port. To overcome these operational hurdles, Trading Line is investing in optimised equipment to further streamline operations and decrease idle time for the vessels. Currently, the company is investing in two new floating cranes that will make a significant difference.
In terms of labour, the industry as a whole must confront an aging workforce. New captains entering the market are hesitant to accept positions on older vessels, due to the less comfortable, and altogether noisier working conditions. This has resulted in a real demand for new vessels.
“We have a big problem with labour, where it is mostly old captains working on the Danube,” says Ivanov. “Roughly 40 percent of the captains available are at pension age.”
The slow discharging times for these older vessels is also a real deterrent. As an example, Ivanov highlights the performance log of the Shir Khan downstream vessel, which, after arriving into port on the 15th November, was not able to depart until the 21st, resulting in several days of costly idle time.
“On each vessel, we are losing so much time. Each captain for one month, works 700 hours, but the real sailing time is less than 100 hours.
“To sail these 100 hours 24/7, you need to have two captains on board and another two at home since they need time to rest. So, for just 100 hours of sailing a month, you need to pay four captains. Those other 600 hours are spent with the vessel either waiting, loading, or discharging.”
“Our business model is that we need to have two key elements – firstly, the speed of the fleet, and secondly, the performance”
REALISING REMOTE PILOTING
In light of these issues, Trading Line is currently engaged in delivering an innovative solution that will seek to surmount the challenges posed by both labour and working conditions on the older barges.
“We are in the process of developing a remote operated captain, with a piloting centre that can be controlled from shore,” shares Ivanov.
“By so doing, the captain can control the boat continuously and moor the vessel (using pylons), then connect to a new one. This means that same captain can operate four or five vessels in one month.”
The significant savings resulting from this solution can then be allocated to new investments in technology for the company and focus on continuously upgrading and promoting the crew, having more sailing hours monthly and gaining more experience and better jobs.
Trading Line is in the final stages of defining an International Consortium for the Remote Piloting Centrum, and will be undertaking this ambitious venture with the help of several strategic partners, including specialists in semi and autonomous shipping, Seafar, Shipping Technologies, Marine AI, Sea Machines, Boning, Sintef Marine, Kongsberg Marine and many others.
The first stage of this development entails the construction of the Remote Piloting Centre in Galati city, as a strategic transport hub on the Danube. This will involve the construction of a €40 million state-of-the-art pilot centre in Galati city. The project is being implemented in European Synergy on the Horizon 2022 programme and the Government of Romania.
An architectural masterpiece, designed with a wave like façade to mimic the waters of the Danube, the remote pilotage centre will house piloting rooms equipped with 4D chairs for simulations and training. Meanwhile the Starlink ground station will provide the critical satellite technology to power operations.
By introducing innovative StarLink technology to Romania, the pilotage centre will also act as a research hub and interconnection centre through the internet exchange between both StarLink and terrestrial, thereby benefitting from the lowest latency in ship command.
Another major benefit of the centre will be the employment opportunities that it is able to provide for women seeking a career in maritime logistics, who typically aren’t employed in captain roles.
Trading Line plans to develop a protocol with several maritime technology companies – including Seafar, Sea Machines, SINTEF, and Boning Ship Automation to name a few – who will devise the hardware to communicate from the centre with the black box of each vessel.
“We are challenging our technological partners to develop a protocol that the console can easily connect to each type of hardware that they develop.
“That black box then records the pilot’s movements. Once all this movement has been recorded in each environment, for each type of hull and vessel, that black box can then use data mining to develop the digital twin,” he explains.
In this way, the new robot who will drive the vessel is born. With such a wide variety of types of vessel, with varying sizes and levels of manoeuvrability, more than one algorithm is needed.
The project is also being delivered in partnership with the University of Antwerp, University of Athens and the universities of Constanța and Galati. In addition, after developing an initial concept map for the remote piloting centre, Trading Line received approval from the Ministry of Transport to develop, test and sail the remote vessels.
“We are taking a new step towards autonomous operations with remote piloting to store and to collect all movements of the captain to learn how to drive these types of vessel,” concludes Ivanov.
With the savings made from the trailblazing steps that Trading Line is taking into the realm of remote piloting, the company will continue to invest in modernising its fleets.
Ivanov envisages a new set of 14 vessels – River Drones, inspired by the Yara Birkeland Zero Emission maritime vessel, but re-imagined for dry cargo riverine operations. These newer vessels will contain on-board accommodation for just two sailors, with a high-tech server room operating as the vessel’s data centre.
With a promising future ahead fuelled by innovation, Trading Line will continue to chart new waters in Romanian shipping.
The Innovation Centre for Remote Navigation in Galati City
We speak with various members of the Romanian Government and significant partners for their insight into the future of autonomous shipping, and Trading Line and Inland Shipping’s development of the Innovation Centre for Remote Navigation
Writer: Phoebe Harper
We find out more about the remote piloting project and the significance of the new centre’s construction in Galati with the city Mayor, Mr. Ionut Pucheanu.
EME Outlook (EO): Could you tell us more about the construction of the Pilot Centre taking place in Galati?
Mr. Ionut Pucheanu, Mayor of Galati City (IP): Building a Shore Control Centre to remotely operate the vessels on the Danube is a private project that benefits from the full support of both local and national governing bodies.
The project consists of the construction of a building with a research and command centre that will be able to operate with up to 100 consoles. This will also involve the development of software and hardware technology on the ground and on board the ship or crane for remote control or autopilot in the future. In addition, practical training will be provided in a virtual environment and through multi-player simulators. The multi-player simulator has the ability to simulate an operation of up to 10 participants simultaneously using different types of ships (river and sea).
Furthermore, the project intends to deploy a ground station of Starlink – the satellite internet service developed by SpaceX and Elon Musk. This has just been authorised in Romania by Sabin Sărmaș, the chairman of the IT commission in the Chamber of Deputies. Consequently, we are one step closer to having internet access across the entire country, with fibre optic and large-scale internet via any satellite.
EO: What makes Danube the ideal place to test and deploy new technology of Remote Sailing, Autonomous Sailing, Data Mining and Digital Twin?
IP: Firstly, this is due to the Danube’s significance as the second longest river in Europe.
Unlike the other major rivers of Europe, the Danube crosses Europe on a west-east direction, thus amplifying its position as an economic and geopolitical strongpoint of Europe. The geopolitical reality means that the Danube can connect Western, Central and Southeastern Europe. The construction of the Danube – Black Sea canal and the Rhine – Main – Danube canal has given extra economic importance to this waterway - it could be said that Europe has a unique river system that will support economic relations within Europe and between Europe and Africa or the Middle East. Presently speaking the Danube - Black Sea canal is not necessarily economically efficient, but its future perspectives and its environmental role (avoiding transit in the Danube Delta) have made it an important spot on the economic, geopolitical and strategic maps.
Secondly, water transport is by far the cheapest and most efficient option. The river is suitable for almost 2,600 km of navigation, between Ulm and Sulina. It is the safest shipping route due to its sandy bottom, plus it is less crowded than the Rhine, which will make testing new technologies less disruptive to the shipping industry. Finally, the Danube allows for more crowded shipping - meaning several ships can traverse at the same time. All these are sufficient reasons for this new naval technology to be tested on the Danube navigation.
EO: How will digitalisation improve shipping operations and why is this innovation so important for the city?
IP: The concept of remotely operated, unmanned, and autonomous ships is creating increasing interest in the maritime domain, promising safety, increased efficiency and sustainability. This will concentrate a new specialised labour force within the city, since the naval pilots will be employees of a Galati company. It will connect Romanian companies to technologies implemented at a European level and put Galati on the map for introducing modern technologies to the naval industry.
EO: What are the benefits of using the Seafar high-tech control centre to control ships autonomously?
IP: The vessels sail with Seafar’s hardware and software automatically, supported by the Shore Control Centre where the team of engineers and captains manage the vessel. The operators in the control centre have a range of high-tech systems based on artificial intelligence, sensor fusion and object detection at their disposal to ensure safe navigation. By integrating these new services and technologies, shipping companies and operators can continuously improve their operational efficiency: reducing operational costs, enhancing competitiveness, and expansion of the navigation possibilities.
This will bring multiple benefits in terms of allowing the training of new captains to be done faster and in conditions of increased safety, minimising the risk of human error. It will also lead to greater collaboration between the institutions that coordinate naval transport on the Danube.
Through the integration of the Seafar control system and services, the capabilities of a vessel can be expanded by optimising crew time efficiency on board and operating with less crew. The optimal performance of vessels can be achieved, leading to unmanned navigation with automated vessels on fixed trajectories with the goal to increase the competitiveness of small sized vessels.
A major advantage of using remote support is that vessels can expand their operational time per year. In theory, having remote access to the vessels may also mean that operations could be controlled from anywhere in the world. Using remote support on demand creates a significant increase in operational efficiency. Consequently, idle time is dramatically reduced (up to 500 working hours per year). Seafar’s automation hardware and software components can be integrated on vessels up to 135m for inland and coastal navigation.
EO: Will the new shore control centre provide employment opportunities for Galati? For instance, I understand that women will be able to operate this technology?
IP: This technology creates a gender balance between men and women, creating the premises for women to enter this male-dominated industry. Today, women represent only 1.2 percent of the global seafarer workforce, which is a 45.8 percent increase compared to 2015.
Furthermore, this will be an opportunity to reduce ‘brain migration’, and retain graduates from the Faculty of Naval Architecture. This is the only such faculty in Romania, with a tradition of over six decades in higher education, training naval architects recognised worldwide for long, motivational and fascinating careers. This Galati institute ensures superior technical training necessary for the research, design and construction of ships and marine structures.
We will continue to work internationally to lead and develop the safe, sustainable and intelligent ships of tomorrow.
Mr. Alin Nica, Vice President of Transport Infrastructure, PNL & President of Timiș County Council
Mr. Alin Nica stands as Vice President of Transport Infrastructure for PNL – Romania’s National Liberal Party. Overseeing the supply chain’s development at a national level for governmental political strategy, Mr. Nica is also President of the Timiș County Council. We discuss his support of the Remote Piloting Centrum in delivering sustainable cargo transportation for the region.
EME Outlook (EO): As President of the Timiș County Council, how will the Remote Piloting Centrum develop sustainable cargo transportation for the region?
Mr. Alin Nica (AN): The Bega canal in Timiș County connects the Timișoara Danube and the Black Sea. This is why it is very important for us to think of innovative modes of transport that will make it much easier for goods and people to travel by water. Technology is taking the place of man in many areas and shipping cannot avoid this. Remote ship management is practically a revolution in the field of shipping which will lead to the development of this safe and efficient means of transport in the next period. But it also opens up new perspectives for the integration into the naval labour market of other categories of people with knowledge in the field of Information Technology, and who can be of real use in this new way of driving ships.
EO: From a national perspective, are you excited for the changes that this project will bring?
AN: Of course. We want to promote this new way of shipping and Romania wants to revive its long tradition in the field of freight transport. This tradition can be renewed now that we are becoming pioneers in the concept of remote piloting, especially since there are many urban centres in Romania where Information Technology is an engine of economic development. This means that we have the necessary workforce to make us competitive in this innovative field.
EO: How will the Remote Piloting Centrum project support the objectives of your local government programme, ‘Timiș at European level’?
AN: Our vision is for Timiș County to become a model of competitiveness both at a national and European level through smart specialisation. This means choosing the areas in which we can be the best and investing wisely and intelligently in those directions. That is why one of our European-funded projects, which we are implementing, is to make the navigability of the Bega canal a gateway for goods and people by water in our county and to develop this mode of transport, which has not been widely used until now.
EO: Finally, could you tell us more about your involvement with Trading Line in this project?
AN: Although we do not have a contractual relationship with Trading Line, the company’s idea to build such a remote piloting centre seems very interesting to me and in line with our objectives and projects.
Mr. Nikolaos P. Ventikos, School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, National Technical University of Athens (NTUA)
As Head of the Naval Engineering Specialisation Committee of the Technical Chamber of Greece, and a member of both the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), and the School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, Mr Nikolaos P. Ventikos represents a key partner in the development of autonomous shipping on the Danube.
EME Outlook (EO): As one of the partners involved in the development of autonomous shipping, how do you envision the future of the Danube as Europe’s first autonomous river?
Nikolaos P. Ventikos (NV): Inland waterway transport (IWT) in Europe represents only six percent of modal share, a predicament that the Commission has been repeatedly trying to mend since 2001. To that end, autonomous vessels are a solution that can induce a compelling modal shift towards IWT, through the employment of entirely redesigned logistics chains, and business models. The Danube basin is a region that has the potential to release an immense latent demand for freight transport throughout European inland waterways. Besides being part of the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T), the Danube’s full exploitation will enable a direct international connection between the North and the Black Sea, spanning across Europe. Cargo vessel traffic in Danube is currently limited, especially compared to its counterpart, the Rhine. Hence, the Danube provides an excellent opportunity for utilising autonomous vessels that can be monitored and controlled via remote control centres (RCC), and aid with the wider impact and exploitation of autonomous maritime technologies in Europe.
EO: Can you give us some insight into the deployment and testing of algorithms for the future?
NV: The tendency to make the production process more efficient and less costly is evident. To achieve this, safety or other issues have to be identified as early as possible in the design phase to reduce the iterations in the systems’ design process, hence making it more efficient. The evolution of technology assists towards this direction through the utilisation of virtual reality, however real scale model testing will always be considered more accurate. I believe that the future of deployment and testing of algorithms will be comprised by a combination of Software In the Loop (SIL), Hardware In the Loop (HIL) along with real model validation Model In the Loop (MIL). SIL deals with the code/algorithm validation to identify coding/programming errors, HIL deals with an integration test of the system, i.e. testing the integration and operational level of a system’s algorithms and sensors in a virtual world, and the latter MIL deals with the functional validation of an algorithm/system on a real scaled model.
 European Court of Auditors, 2015. Inland waterway transport in Europe: no significant improvements in modal share and navigability conditions since 2001. Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.
Mr. Onut Atanasiu, Vice-president of Commission for Education in Romanian Parliament
Mr. Onut Atanasiu is the Vice-President of the Commission for Education in Romanian Parliament. We hear his opinion on his goals for Galati city in light of the centre’s development from an educational perspective.
EME Outlook: What are your plans to develop education in Galati City in respect of Trading Line’s and Inland Shipping’s plans to construct the Innovation Centre for Remote Navigation?
Mr. Onut Atanasiu: My former student, Paul Ivanov’s plans in the development of remote piloting refer to things that we want to build together so that we can make the city of Galati a pole of distance navigation. We also believe that this could lead to the development of the city, the regional and even the national economy.
Mr. Ioan-Sabin Sărmaș, President of Commission for Information and Communication Technology from Romanian Parliament
Elected in the Romanian region of Cluj – which is acknowledged as the country’s answer to Silicon Valley - Mr. Ioan-Sabin Sărmaș is President of the Commission for Information and Communication Technology. Since his election, Mr. Sărmaș has been committed to introducing an innovative future for Romania and its younger generations.
In the last months, under Sărmaș’s leadership, the Commission approved a few essential laws that boost Romania’s communication infrastructure, such as Communications Code or 5G Law. In addition, most recently, ANCOM approved the use of StarLink’s services in the country as an alternative for broadband services in Romania.
Now, Trading Line and its partners are in the process of convincing StarLink to construct the first ground station in the Innovation Centre for Remote Navigation. This will significantly improve internet connection services throughout Romania and neighboring Ukraine, thereby developing a sustainable IT and Communication Technology network that many business sectors will benefit from.
EME Outlook: In light of Trading Line’s and Inland Shipping’s project to build and develop the Innovation Centre for Remote Navigation, where do you suggest that Starlink deploys its first ground station?
Mr. Ioan-Sabin Sărmaș: First of all, I am content to see more and more companies in Romania involved in innovative projects. This should be among the top priorities of our industry.
While it is impossible for me to suggest to Starlink where to deploy the ground station, they will probably look after the fibre optics hubs like Bucharest, Brasov, Galati, Sibiu, and the proximity of communities they are interested in.
I recently found out about an initiative of Inland Shipping which, from my understanding, is in touch with the Municipality of Galati to find a proper location where they will propose that StarLink deploys a ground station. As mentioned before, Galati city is among the fibre optics hubs from Romania, with fibre optics in neighbouring countries. In particular, the city also has a telecommunications tower with a radio redundancy network that can be used as backup links in case fibre optics become damaged.
I hope they will succeed in their endeavour cause the sooner we have the first Starlink deployment in Romania, the better.
Irene Rosberg, Programme Director, Executive MBA in Shipping and Logistics, Copenhagen Business School
Irene Rosberg is a force in the international shipping industry. Most recently, Rosberg was nominated as number one out of the top 100 women in the shipping industry, by All About Shipping. This is largely thanks to her work as Programme Director at the Copenhagen Business School for the Executive Blue MBA in Shipping and Logistics, and how the programme champions greater gender diversity and inclusion in the industry. She is also Chief Executive of the Blue MBA Alumni Association, and President of the Maritime Network of Women (M-NOW).
We hear her thoughts from an educational perspective with regards to Trading Line’s ongoing developments and the Blue MBA programme’s goals in advancing the shipping industry.
EME Outlook (EO): How will the Blue MBA programme help to advance shipping operations in Romania?
Irene Rosberg (IR): We make sure that we have the flexibility to provide our participants with the knowledge and skill sets they need to carry out their company’s project. The learning is very hands-on and applied, and makes sure to provide the skill sets required to do the work they have at hand. Our Romanian participants are focusing on advancing the operations of the shipping and shipping-related industry in Romania. Our job is to make sure that we provide them with the skill sets they need to do this. While they bring us the issues, we give them the possibility and show them the way to find the solution.
EO: Similarly, how will the programme develop the remote shipping agenda?
IR: One of the advantages that we provide to our participants through the programme is translating the needs of the industry into our academic programme. By doing this we make sure to stay current and relevant and today digitalisation and advanced technology is on the top of our agenda.
EO: Could you expand on the development of the Remote Piloting Centrum project and why this is so significant for sustainable cargo transportation?
IR: Remote pilotage is another way of moving into the age of digitalisation. This has already been tried in some of the Nordic countries’ navigation software, provision for collecting the AIS data and having a proper platform to analyse this data. The concept will be of great benefit for the ports.
EO: Finally, how will these developments help to increase gender diversity in the shipping supply chain?
IR: The pressing demand for personnel with the relevant skillsets to respond to the impact of IT on the shipping industry and the demand for innovative leaders remains. It will only be met if we commit to empowering women and bringing them in as partners to secure a maritime industry that is viable in all senses of the word.