Smart Ports in Europe, where are we going?

The EU is highly dependent on ports for global trade but also within its internal market. Approximately 74% of goods imported and exported and 37% of exchanges within the EU transit take place through ports [1].

Ports in recent years have introduced automation on land operations with automated cranes and robotic vehicles for transporting and placing containers [2] etc. but there is still much to be done in terms of automating water operations in the wider port area. Operations like approaching vessels through narrow corridors (sea, river, etc.), maneuvering and docking of ships, are still dependent on human skill and ship shore communications. These tasks are very time consuming, not accounting for human errors, which can bear financial costs to the operation of the ports but also environmental costs to the port and wider port area, through ships emissions. Other port operations are not yet automated such as port facilities inspection, port security, bathymetry measurements, oil spill or other pollutant detection and identification, etc. In particular there is a gap in the gate activities and booking systems for trucks, that is still far from a usual practice, and only the terminal with previous truck line congestions have develop systems to solve and management the gates and terminal access.

Current practices in port logistic operation

Port logistics have evolved considerably in the last decade in an effort to minimize downtime of land use, promote better coordination between port and city logistic chains, increase efficiency and promote “paperless” services. European ports are at the forefront of innovation in logistics, with the ports of Hamburg and Rotterdam leading the way. Port of Hamburg has introduced a central platform which informs on traffic, management of space inside the port, estimated arrival time of ships, etc. In this manner it informs all relevant actors. Similar efforts have been put forth from the port of Rotterdam for “paperless” transfer which in the near future will be realized.

This new initiatives aims to capitalize and build on the innovations by introducing RFIDs and other sensor input for all cargo entering the port, in order to track real time each cargo node. Port city interconnection, with real time tracking of road and rail traffic and digital platform for optimization of traffic in and out of port. Furthermore the Digital Platforms developed by the advanced ports, are a web based platform accessible to all relevant actors (port authorities, customers, security, customs, etc.) with different levels of accessibility. In addition to this, the automated waterborne sector and connected all the information which is generated from the Internet of Things to the digital platform. Information is recorded and assessed in the digital platform, such as exact arrival time from the maneuvering and docking procedures, security info and pollution detection and identification. In this manner this digital platforms operate as a central logistic control system for all the port operations.

Internet of Things (IoT) consists of two parts, the “Internet” part which can be considered as a network of networks available everywhere and the “Things” part which comprises of physical objects that can be actuated, sensed and connected and virtual objects that can be stored, processed and accessed.

The IoT network deployment presents a number of challenges in terms of energy consumption, security, bandwidth, signaling and of course cost efficiency. The existing wireless and fixed line network infrastructure currently available in the ports participating in the project will be taken into account. For the sensor network enhancements technologies that combine low cost and energy consumption will be considered like Bluetooth, RFID and Zigbee. Sensor data from the containers will be collected in real-time and forwarded to routers located in the port. For the transmission of the aggregated data from the routers to the port platform a mobile solution (LTE or 3G) can be used or existing network infrastructure (e.g. optical fibers).

What is expected to achieve with port digitalization?

Maritime transport has been in the center of economic prosperity of Europe throughout its history. It plays vital role in the trade and supply of energy, food and commodities among the European nations as well as the rest of the world, mainly because sea Transport is considered efficient in terms of capability/capacity. Approximately 74% of goods imported and exported and 37% of exchanges within the EU transit take place through ports [3]. With more than 400 million sea passengers passing through European ports each year, maritime transport has also a direct impact on the quality of life of citizens, both as tourists and inhabitants of islands and peripheral regions [4]. Not only that, but, maritime industries are an important source of employment and income for the European economy. Moreover ports are the nodes where the multimodal logistic flows of the trans-EU network is organized, using short sea shipping, rail and inland water ways in order to minimize road congestion and energy consumption.

The above combined with the restrictions in land use of ports, environmental concerns due to ship operations in the vicinity of port area and pollution risks and the complexities of the hinterland connection between ports and urban environment where the limited capacity of roads, rail ways or untapped efficiency in logistics and storage capacity can become a bottleneck in port operations, increases demand for focused waterborne services and upgrading of infrastructure in order to handle or attract more cargo and passengers and obtain significantly higher performance with the existing infrastructure.

Technological development and advanced logistics conceptions which maximize the efficiency of the overall transport chain by means of short sea shipping and inland waterway transport are also required for achieving sustainable mobility [4] .

It is expected that the increasing of ICT (information and communication technology) capabilities with massive growth in computational capacity and data storage capabilities, globally accessible networks and cloud infrastructure with increasing bandwidth, availability of smart devises (Internet of Things) and smart and cheap sensors will drive digitalization in all waterborne sectors.

Evolution to full actors, facilities, operations and transactions integration
Evolution to full actors, facilities, operations and transactions integration

In a recently published report [5] of Maritime Europe Strategy Action Project a number of RDI needs were identified based on the technology gaps in various fields of the maritime sector. The logistics operations especially, should be improved by the development of decision Support and Monitoring Systems enabled for cloud operations for all actors both at the office as well as mobile users and integration to the different systems (e.g. SafeSeaNet, AIS, LRIT, eCustoms, etc.) to improve data quality and operational efficiency. Also by the development of Big Data and Analytics, offering quality data to all interested parties, in order to improve service provision. Finally, EU Ports employ more than 3 million people (directly and indirectly). Economic research has directly linked growth in port throughput with the creation of jobs in surrounding regions [1]. The technological changes imposed by the new transport and logistics needs will drive requirements for mastering innovative port operations and the need for employees with the right skills, training and qualifications to understand, master and exploit all the advantages provided by the new technologies. This is expected to further support economic benefits and increase the social dialogue between port and city.

The “Smart port” logistic approach developments which uses smart sensor devices to automate certain port operations and cloud infrastructure interconnectivity between various stakeholders combined with the predictive capabilities of the ICT platform, will have as a result the:

  • More efficient use of port and warehouse space
  • Minimization of delays in the cargo handling and hinterland transport
  • Relief of traffic congestion to the port gates and neighboring urban areas
  • Reduction of the overall cost of reporting by eliminating non-adding value activities.
  • Reduction of the administrative burden -from hours to minutes- allowing port authorities and ship personnel to focus on efficiency and safety of operations.
  • Increase employment of skilled technology professionals especially of young age and thus directly impact economic growth in the surrounding areas.

ALG working together with INDRA are searching for innovative tools and solutions to develop key actions in this new portfolio. The main objective is to test the pilot projects in new environments around the port activities. This innovative methodology allows to shorten times, reduce risks and reach different solutions for the port stakeholders.

 [3] COM(2013) 295: COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION, Ports: an engine for growth EUROPEAN COMMISSION (2013).
 [4] Strategic goals and recommendations for the EU’s maritime transport policy until 2018” – COM(2009) 8 final.
 [5] TTG4 e-Maritime: Proposals for R&D Road Map” – Maritime Europe Strategy Action, 04 July 2016.

About the authors
Xavier Roca is MBA, MSc in Engineering and Ports Director at ALG
Luis Pérez Madariaga is MSc in Supply Chain Management, BSc in Maritime Transport and Ports Manager at ALG
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