Private 5G: enabling ports of the future

On the back of major disruptions like the global pandemic and the Suez Canal Ever Given blockage, the shipping industry needs more innovative solutions to traditional supply chain problems. 5G’s ability to turn ports into smart ports built on visibility and predictability can drive the maritime sector forward with new use cases.

Ports are essential hubs of modern transportation and international trade. They are responsible for transferring as much as 90% of the world’s goods. Yet, many still struggle to fully integrate automated systems into supply chain logistics: there is plenty of optimization that can still be done. Ports need an overhaul to reduce operational delays caused by vessel and truck congestion and overcome unexpected disruptions like the recent Suez Canal blockage.

The Ever Given incident left more than 400 ships queued up at either end of the canal, unable to deliver their cargoes. This kind of delay is hugely expensive for shipping companies. The National Bureau of Economic Research reports that when they can’t unload for whatever reason, shipping companies pay 0.6% to 2% of the value of the goods on board every day. 5G private networks can help smart ports address these kinds of challenges in real time.

Benefits already being realized

Orange is working with the Port of Antwerp on a 5G private network project that uses 5G NR (New Radio), also known as Standalone 5G. The network supports virtualization via software-defined networking (SDN) to enable separate network slices. This allows different parties to use the network securely with their own dedicated bandwidth and latency requirements.

The 5G network has already enabled use cases, including connected tugboats. Usually, when tugboats are moving a vessel around a port, they have little to no visibility of what each other is doing. The Port of Antwerp’s 5G network lets tugboats send data between themselves, reliably, in real time. It also powers pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras attached to tugboats that send images to the port control room.

What else can 5G bring to smart ports?

The speed and low latency of 5G will enable a massive variety of smart port use cases. Take computer vision, which can be combined with AI to learn how to recognize patterns and objects in video feeds. The Port of Antwerp has deployed 600 cameras that let it automatically monitor berths, people and traffic flow around the port area to make the site more efficient.

AI solutions will be vital in enabling predictability in ports. If you can predict demand for berths and other areas of the port, you can streamline operations while giving port customers an enhanced experience. Linking up so many HD video feeds over a large area is typically very expensive. 5G allows Port of Antwerp to connect all these cameras to its network without the need to deploy any additional communications infrastructure.

Low latency is another crucial component of private 5G networks in ports: 5G has a typical average latency of around 10ms. Ports have long wanted to explore the possibilities of autonomous and remote operation of machines, like trucks, cranes and straddle carriers, but to this point have been prevented by network latency. 5G can enable this and also make the remote control of tugs more viable.

Enabling a safer environment

One of the tenant companies at Port of Antwerp, a chemical company, is using the port’s 5G network to deploy computer vision and AI to detect faults in high-voltage cables across the site. The company is leveraging the highly secured data transmission of the 5G network to connect onsite equipment with cloud-hosted AI-powered quality check systems. The outcome is a high-quality production operation that is safer for all workers at the port.

Data-driven decision-making and much more

Visibility is central to helping scale up technology trials into viable smart port solutions. Furthermore, instant visibility of cargo and operations around the port lets customers make decisions faster and more accurately. To enable this, smart ports are becoming intelligent, high-tech data hubs that will help revolutionize global transport and logistics systems.

Further to the progressive work using Standalone 5G at Port of Antwerp, Orange recently announced 5G availability for companies in the Port of Le Havre, France. Using the 3.5GHz spectrum band, the opening of the 5G network aims to improve the attractiveness and competitiveness of the port area. Tenant companies will be able to build new use cases thanks to real-time data at the port and will be able to use connected robotics and augmented reality maintenance or even make remote interventions possible.

New port-of-the-future use cases like remote-controlled ship-to-shore cranes, automated gantry cranes, automated cargo-moving vehicles, condition monitoring, predictive maintenance and drones can all be possible.

Ports are becoming data hubs, enabling monitoring of people, processes and assets throughout the whole shipping supply chain. Collecting and analyzing data in real time will help ports drive new use cases that cover customer experience, labor requirements and costs, and 5G private networks will enable that data generation and gathering. This will offer ports the visibility and predictability that can help them take operations to the next level.

Read about the 5G network at the Port of Le Havre here.

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.