Accelerating global trade in the port of the future

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December 19, 2019
Catherine Gull

IoT Private Networks Automation Remote Control Port of the future

Today's ports are facing mounting challenges. The rise of the megaship with its massively increased container capacity and sheer size has created bottlenecks in ports all over the world with vessels regularly experiencing longer waiting times. As megaships become more prevalent and global trade continues to ramp up, ports are turning to technology to streamline operations and speed up the unloading and loading process.

Our port customers understand their vital role in the movement of goods around the world and are making every effort to keep up with the sharp rise in volume. They are seeing how transformative technologies like automation, the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine learning can be to their operations and many of our port customers are readily embracing these technologies. The goal for these ports is to create a seamless, choreographed environment where ships berth, their cargo is unloaded and then quickly loaded onto waiting trucks and rail.

Private networks with reliable and consistent speeds that reach every corner of the port terminals, together with low latency, are laying the path for ports to roll out technologies that will revolutionise the port environment. We're already seeing innovation at some of the world's largest and busiest ports where automated vehicles and cranes are speeding up the loading and unloading process, and where IoT is giving port operators access to real-time data for better port management.

Remote control cranes will improve port efficiency

While remote control cranes and stackers are already a feature in some of the world's more advanced ports, they will become commonplace in the port of the future. The ability to control cranes remotely will have a direct impact on productivity at busy ports; because the cranes are manned remotely they can be operated nearly continuously and through shift changes without the physical on-port safety concerns.

With autonomous cranes the Chinese port of Qingdao has been able to reduce its labour costs by 70% while at the same time increasing efficiency by 30%.

This is already happening in Qingdao Port in China where automated crane systems mean the port has been able to reduce its labour costs by 70% while at the same time increasing efficiency by 30%. In addition, crane drivers can be assigned to more highly skilled engineering and maintenance jobs at the port, increasing job satisfaction and reducing employee churn.

Automated vehicles to drive productivity

The controlled, restricted environment of a port is an ideal testing ground for autonomous vehicles. Today, ports around the world are trialling self-driving trucks and other vehicles in a bid to load and unload ships faster and more efficiently. Using autonomous vehicles allows ports to achieve a steady pace when moving containers from one end of the port to the other, and in a sector where a key performance indicator is moves per hour, this continuous flow will make a significant difference. The port of the future will be populated with autonomous vehicles, all working away steadily, often through the night as ports try to speed up the time-intensive unloading process. 

In Rotterdam, we're also seeing a trial of truck platooning where trucks are electronically connected with each other. Led by a truck driven by a human operator, a series of unmanned trucks follow behind, mimicking the actions and speed of the lead truck. As well as improving traffic flow and safety in the ports, truck platooning is poised to help ports reduce their CO2 emissions as the trucks are programmed to drive at a continuous set distance from each other and "air drag" is reduced.

Intelligent data to reduce vessel waiting times

An inescapable element every port has to deal with is nature itself. Unanticipated shifts in tide levels can have a significant knock-on effect on port operations with ships often out at sea for days waiting for the tide to change. Although technology cannot control the flow of the tides, the port of the future will be better equipped to predict and react to nature's whims.

Radio and radar will be enhanced by a central dashboard through which all communications and weather data will flow. Ports will use the dashboard to communicate with ship captains, pilots and the terminal and data gathered by intelligent sensors will populate on the dashboard in real time. With this streamlined system ports will have greater weather and tidal visibility and will be able to react more efficiently to reduce ship waiting times. One of the world's most advanced ports, Rotterdam, is currently working on a central dashboard and is estimating that access to real-time weather and tidal data could lead to savings of $80,000 per vessel docking at its port.

IoT to proactively monitor port machinery

Ports are machinery heavy environments populated by cranes, stackers, hoppers, straddle carriers, Internal Transfer Vehicles, rail-mounted gantry cranes and forklifts. For optimum port efficiencies all of these assets need to be in the right place at the right time and be in peak condition. In the port of the future IoT will combine with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning to ensure the port can accurately monitor the location and health of its assets.

Tomorrow's port will use sensors to gain real-time data on where each asset is in the port, its performance and any anomalies or warnings. Predictive maintenance alerts can be triggered for smart maintenance of assets as ports look to boost productivity and reduce downtime. GPS sensors will be integrated with smart mapping interfaces for port operators to gain a real-time overview of asset location. This will allow tomorrow's ports to ensure all machinery is where it should be, when it should be. All of this data will likely flow through the port's central digital dashboard for ultimate visibility and transparency.

The port of the future is arguably closer than we think with Europe's and Asia's ports making significant headway in trialling technologies that will have a massive impact on the way they operate. While the challenges they are facing are likely to continue to grow, through clever use of technologies like automation and IoT, global ports will be well equipped to handle them.