Improving Safety and Efficiency with Port Automation

By Jan Diekmann, Technical Account Manager – Advanced Industries, Transportation Industry, Ericsson, and Adam Schipper, Director of Business Development, Transportation and Logistics, Ericsson North America

Ports are struggling to keep up with the demands of modern trade. The newest generation of mobile private networks are enabling use cases that through port automation will save costs, make operations more efficient and keep workers out of harm’s way.

The need for better logistics and remote operation has been underscored by recent supply chain backlogs. Private networks are already powering a digital revolution in global ports, bringing modern practices and investing in a communication platform that will meet smart ports needs for now and into the future.

In this article, we will explore some of the use cases that drive port automation with both efficiency and safety – drones for surveillance and deliveries, and condition monitoring.

Condition Monitoring Keeps Equipment Running and Workers Safe

Ports are complicated operations, where deliveries are scheduled down to the minute and heavy machines need to move large cargo containers with precision. One of the most critical aspects to keeping a port running smoothly and efficiently is the condition of equipment like cranes and small vehicles.

Especially when global supply chain issues are causing backlogs and slowdowns, downtime can result in costly disruptions to operations. Condition monitoring, done through an interconnected network of cellular-connected sensors, helps collect and analyze data on the condition of equipment, including things like temperature and even vibration rate. This can help predict future equipment failures as well as enabling quick resolution of malfunctions. When an anomaly is detected, processes can be shut down remotely or even automatically, and a worker dispatched to the site to resolve the problem.

This process is ideally suited for a 5G private network. Those sensors, coupled with a cloud-based process monitoring solution, enables condition data to transfer in real-time, with responses as fast as a fraction of a second. 5G’s low latency and speed enables that transfer, and private networks keep this data on site, so it remains secure and accessible instantly by supervisors. According to a report by Port Strategy, this can reduce on-the-ground monitoring by as much as 40%.

On the other side of the coin, precise condition monitoring can make sure the maintenance is being performed exactly when it’s needed. This can not only reduce downtime for work that’s not actually necessary, but save costs by using fewer spare parts, lubricants, etc.

Monitoring the condition of equipment is also a safety issue. According to research from Budiyanto and Fernanda, we have documented many port accidents in the last five years were due to poor tool maintenance, and equipment damage was also linked to fires. When maintenance is conducted more precisely, supported by data from condition monitoring, the risk of malfunctioning equipment – and therefore injuries to workers – goes down.

According to Ericsson’s Connected Ports report, in total the financial benefit to condition monitoring enabled by a private network is around 2.7% of a port’s total revenue, and that such a system will pay for itself in about two years.

Drones are Going Where Human Workers Can’t

Another technology that will go from scattered pilots to an integral part of the smart ports of the future is drones. COVID-19 accelerated the demand for remote operation of things like safety inspections and deliveries.

The initial use cases for drones at ports involved surveillance or security. Ericsson’s data from the Connected Ports report predicts drone surveillance will decrease theft at ports by 75% – which will bring operators additional savings by lowering insurance premiums.

But the low-latency and processing power of 5G, especially when powered by private networks, is bringing automated drones to life and greatly expanding their usefulness for things like maintenance inspections and even ship-to-shore deliveries.

At the Port of Long Beach, the second-busiest port in the United States, drones are helping inspectors capture high-quality video of infrastructure at the port, things like storm drains, fire hydrants, and fenders and bollards along the wharf. Drones also allow workers to examine cranes and other hard-to-reach structures.

In both cases, security and safety, camera-equipped drones collect and stream data to the cloud, where analytics can be used to detect abnormalities, like an intruder in an unauthorized area or a container stacked in the wrong place.

Drones can also be used instead of traditional “launch” boats to deliver small items to and from approaching ships. Drones are being used in this way in the Port of Singapore, and according to a Freightwaves report, ship-to-shore deliveries there now happen six times faster and cost 90% less.

As an added benefit, drone deliveries also reduce CO2 emissions and keep human workers out of harm’s way.

Digitization Through Private Networks is the Key to Managing Growth in Ports

These and other use cases are more than nice-to-haves. They’re critical for ports to be able to handle an increase in traffic. The firm Cargotec is predicting a compound annual growth rate of 3.6% for the global container throughput from 2013 to 2024. In Europe, the European Commission projects the amount of cargo handled by EU ports will grow 50% by 2030 – and US ports are sure to see a similar increase. But to accommodate this growth in traffic, ports will need to become more efficient and more automated. LTE/5G private networks are giving port operators the tools they need to meet these challenges head on.

Jan Diekmann works specifically in ports technology under business development. In this role, Jan focuses on partnering with ports for the next generation of digital transformation and looks at ways Ericsson can support. Mr. Diekmann has been with Ericsson for over 20 years and holds an electrical engineering degree from the University of Dortmund in Germany.

Adam Schipper has over 25 years working in the transportation industry. With a proven passion for the transportation industry, he received his Certified Transportation Professional designation from the National Private Truck Council. Adam focuses on the adoption and acceleration of digital transformation in the transportation arena. In addition, he is responsible for advocating and helping the ports, aviation, rail and the connected car industry.