The world’s major ports are crucial junctions in global supply chains. According to the International Chamber of Shipping, shipping makes around 90 percent of world trade possible. So it’s no wonder that the port authorities around the globe are working on making work processes as safe, fast, and error-free as possible through networked technology. And there is some evidence that drones will play an important role in the port of the future. The degree of automation in port facilities has increased continuously over the past few years and decades. For example, Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG (HHLA) has been using driverless AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) to transport containers for quite some time at the Altenwerder container terminal. In Singapore, tests were carried out to find out how drones can transport urgent documents or medicines between ships and the mainland in order to accelerate processes or even avoid complete docking processes. Such flights have already taken place in Rotterdam.
The communication technology giant Ericsson, in turn, examined the potential of private 5G campus networks for ports as part of a study. According to the authors, the analysis outlines use cases that optimize port operations, increase employee safety, reduce costs and increase the sustainability of port operations. The report “Connected Ports: A guide to making ports smarter with private cellular technology” describes how the challenges of machine downtimes, overcrowded port areas during loading and unloading, occupational safety, and environmental pollution could be solved through the use of private cellular networks. “Networked logistics and supply chains can make a major contribution to a more sustainable economy,” explains Olaf Reus, member of the management team at Ericsson GmbH.
In addition to remote-controlled ship-to-shore cranes, automated portal cranes, autonomous vehicles, and continuous condition monitoring, drones will also play an important role in the port of the future, according to the Ericsson report. For example, for transporting documents and smaller items. Many papers have to be brought from the port to the ship before they are docked. Traditionally, boats are used for this, which devours a lot of time and money. According to Ericsson, a single shipment of these documents can cost over the US $ 1,000. The use of drones is almost 90 percent cheaper and six times faster.
Another task for unmanned systems can be in the area of system monitoring. According to Ericsson, there were up to 15 thefts of cargo in ports around the world in 2018. This is where part of the port operator’s “Port of the Future” strategy in Antwerp, Belgium, comes into play. The company premises extend over 120 square kilometers, are difficult to monitor in the traditional way, and reacting to alarms at short notice is also a challenge. In order to be well-positioned for the future, the first test flights recently started with an automated drone, which was developed in cooperation with the company Drone Matrix was developed. The unmanned aerial vehicle takes off from a fixed base near the Kieldrecht lock and follows a fixed route in the port. In addition, it can also be used on request, for example in emergencies when it is important to get an overview of the situation. The drone works completely autonomously and charges itself via an intelligent docking station that is managed centrally via a web platform.
If the project managers have their way, then they should by no means be left with a drone. The goal is a network of autonomous drones that can provide a “live feed” of the various port activities. “In view of the huge area of the port area, drones are a lever in fulfilling our core tasks as a port authority,” explains Erwin Verstraelen, Chief Digital & Innovation Officer Port of Antwerp. “Thanks to a network of drones, we can keep a better eye on what’s going on in the port. Via our innovation platform ‘Port of the Future’ and the cooperation with partners such as DroneMatrix, we can accelerate technological innovations – not only for drones but also for promising developments in autonomous shipping, intelligent cameras, and sensors.