A busy sea port, yesterday

Seven ways seaports are adapting to modern challenges

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Europe’s seaports are now facing a series of unprecedented challenges, from Brexit to climate change and intense international competition. However, technological solutions are helping them to adapt.

Of all the handwringing about the UK’s imminent departure from the EU, one area that has perhaps received less attention than it deserves is Brexit’s impact on ports. Some 95 per cent of the UK’s international trade passes through its seaports and there’s real anxiety in the maritime community about the impact of extra customs checks and the inevitable delays that may arise.

Brexit isn’t the only storm on the horizon for European harbour masters. Climate change could bring about more extreme weather events, exposing docks and warehouses to greater pressures. Ports need to provide value-added services such as repairs as well as inspecting containers for contraband. There is also the endless drive to cut costs in an industry with paper-thin margins – a 2017 survey by port software firm Navis found that over three-quarters of ports say optimising operations is top priority.

There is no single solution to these challenges, but seaports around the world are investing in innovative technologies to make their operations more efficient, productive and sustainable. Here we explore seven unique examples.

1. Digital twins

Even the slightest delay in turning a ship around can lead to a big rise in costs for shipping firms – often in the tens of thousands of pounds per day. Seaports therefore have a big incentive to process container ships fast and are continually looking for ways to improve the speed and efficiency of their processes. The trouble is, experimenting with new ways of doing things can be very costly – especially if the innovation unintentionally causes delays.

This is where a ‘digital twin’ comes in. As the name suggests, a digital twin is a representation of a place which follows all the same physical laws and dimensions as its real-world equivalent. A digital twin lets users experiment with the environment to try out improvements and see what would happen without real-world consequences.

The Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands is widely regarded is the world’s most technologically advanced. In conjunction with tech companies IBM, Cisco and Esri, the Dutch port has built a digital twin of its facilities to experiment with new ways of doing things.

What does this look like? Picture a cargo ship that is weighed down with heavy containers; it will first need to enter a deeper part of the port, since it will be lower in the water, so that cranes can remove the boxes before it moves to a shallower area for further processing. The digital twin allows the port’s authorities to test exactly how much of the ship’s goods need to be transported onto the quayside before it can sail on. This kind of calculation could help reduce congestion, since the next ship could enter the deep part of the port sooner.

2. Safer mooring

There’s something iconic about seeing a ship held in place with mooring lines tied to quayside bollards. All the same, in today’s high-tech era, this approach seems somewhat anachronistic. What’s more, tying ships in place then releasing them can be relatively risky for dockworkers – especially during heavy storms and high winds.

In order to modernise mooring, Swedish firm Trelleborg has designed a system called AutoMoor, which could change how vessels are kept in place. AutoMoor is an automated, rope-free mooring system intended to make berthing faster and more efficient. The system uses vacuum holding pads, which ‘grip’ onto the side of ships in harbour. The vacuum pads are set on top of a rotating base, which swivels inwards when the vessel is released. By removing the need to attach mooring lines, less manpower is needed to bring a ship into line and no dockworkers are required to attach or release her.

3. Hydrogen-powered tugs to reduce emissions

Tugboats play an invaluable role in the efficient running of a port, helping guide enormous container ships into berth. However, they are also an important polluter since most run on diesel engines.

In 2019, the Port of Antwerp announced it had ordered the world’s first hydrogen-powered tugboat as part of its efforts to become carbon neutral. Being built by Belgian firm CMB, the Hydrotug uses a dual-fuel hybrid engine, which will mainly run on hydrogen – thereby reducing emissions of CO2 around the port. This follows the successful 2017 launch of Hydroville, a hydrogen-powered ferry also designed by CMB in Antwerp.

4. Cosmic rays to scan for contraband

Policing what comes through a port is hugely challenging, and only around 1 or 2 per cent of containers passing through ever get inspected. This means that ports remain hotspots for smuggling drugs, weapons and other contraband – not to mention human beings, as tragically highlighted by the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants who were found in a shipping container that was brought into the UK in November 2019.

The most common way to inspect shipping containers is a physical visual inspection by port security teams. This involves opening up a container and looking through goods – often with the help of a sniffer dog. However, this process is incredibly time-consuming and unpopular with importers since it can slow down their supply chain. Over the past few years, some ports have started using X-ray machines to scan the inside of a container more rapidly, but X-ray machines produce harmful radiation and they cannot pass through liquids or thick steel.

US company Decision Sciences has developed a new inspection system named Discovery, which makes use of elementary particles called muons, which it believes are significantly more effective than X-rays. Muons are continuously entering the atmosphere from outer space. When they pass through liquids and solids they scatter in characteristic ways; you can tell whether the muon has passed through water or iron (for instance) based on patterns in scattering.

Decision Sciences’ inspection tools make ingenious use of this naturally occurring phenomenon. Muons from the surrounding atmosphere pass through the ‘ceiling’ of the system where they are detected. They then pass through the shipping container itself, then to another muon detection system on the ground below. If the muons have scattered in specific ways, this tells the port authorities what materials are likely to be inside the container – and that means they can tell if there is anything suspicious present, including explosives, drugs, precious metals or human beings. Crucially, it is a passive system with no moving parts, making it a much faster way of scanning containers.

5. Autonomous ship docking

Cars aren’t the only vehicles in the sights of automation. In 2019, Finnish firm Wärtsilä claimed to have brought the world’s first commercially available auto-docking system to market after successful trials on a Norwegian ferry line.

Docking can be hazardous and complex, and captains on ferry lines often have to repeat the same process over and again throughout the course of the day. An auto-docking system can help make the process safer by instantaneously processing a large amount of data, including wind speed, weight, pitch, roll and depth to figure out the best route into harbour.

This doesn’t mean goodbye to crews, however. Just as aeroplanes are increasingly flown using autopilot, they still need people on board to deal with more complex or unpredictable situations.

6. Automated cranes and vehicles

It’s not just ships where automation is making inroads within ports. For several years now, the cranes used for moving containers from ships onto the quayside have been automated in many ports. Why charge a human with the tedious job of lifting and shifting containers to a stack all day (and night), when a machine can do it just as well?

Indeed, ports have in many ways been at the cutting edge of automation for some time. Konecranes is another Finnish business working in automation for the maritime industry. The firm offers customers a comprehensive system, which includes autonomous cranes, fleets of autonomous vehicles to move containers from the quayside to container stacks, and additional cranes at the other end to move them into place.

At the Port of Hamburg, for instance, Konecranes’ autonomous vehicles have been shifting containers to and from ships since 2001 – and since then the vehicles have been powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The flatbed machines can be seen rolling purposefully around a terminal ready to have shipping containers placed on – or removed from – them.

7. Ship inspections with underwater drones

Ports are the logical place to inspect ships for damage and make repairs. However, it can be hard to ascertain the level and extent of damage to anything below the waterline, for obvious reasons, so human divers are often required to inspect problems with the hull, propellers and thrusters. That’s a potentially dangerous job, which is also expensive and time-consuming. So why not use a drone instead?

Another Scandinavian firm working at the cutting edge of port technology is Norway’s Blueye, which has built a drone that can navigate underneath ships to inspect for breakages or other problems. The drone comes with an HD camera and Wi-Fi connectivity, which allows it to live-stream video, which can then be sent directly to experts for consultation.

Seaports are facing a series of unpredictable challenges, all while needing to reduce operational costs. However, as the examples listed here have shown, there is plenty of innovation in the sector, allowing harbour masters to run a tight ship.



Climate change

Reducing the environmental impact of ports

Ports have been relatively slow to respond to the threat of climate change – perhaps due to the international nature of the industry which means that joined up efforts are difficult to co-ordinate. Another factor is that ports themselves are relatively low emitters; it is the ships and lorries coming into the port which are the real source of emissions.  

Nonetheless, port authorities are increasingly acknowledging that their very existence is the cause of much pollution and several industry leaders are now taking the issue seriously.

Dr Laurie Wright is a researcher at Southampton University which is part of a European Commission funded project with four ports across the continent. The Ports Energy and Carbon Savings (PECS) project has been investigating several different technologies which could help make ports more sustainable.

Dr Wright lists some of the innovations, including floating solar panels, energy sharing schemes where ports split the bill with nearby businesses and wind turbines integrated into the port estate. So far, he says, the project has shown that all the demonstrators are scalable.

Nonetheless, there are challenges for ports when it comes to sustainability. Dr Wright points out that the industry is slow to change in part because they ports tend to make enormous capital purchases on equipment and machinery that is expected to last for decades. There is, for example, little motivation to replace a polluting system that was installed in the 1990s if it is still working fine.

What’s more, because ports often have tight profit margins there is reticence about spending on new infrastructure such as hydrogen shore-side power which feels relatively new and untested. And then there’s planning and legislative barriers too – installing new technologies can be slowed down by bureaucracy.

All the same, he points out that “more and more ports are realising that investing in sustainable technologies isn’t just about the environmental benefits – they are often more efficient too”.

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