What are Smart Ports and How Will They Change the Shipping Industry?

Maritime commerce has largely persisted throughout human history. Perhaps due to its longevity, then, the wider public today seems to regard shipping and port operations as somewhat conservative and less prone to change. Indeed, this preconception may have been closer to reality a decade or two ago – albeit still arguably so. However, a staggering influx of both passengers and cargo has come to challenge this notion in recent years. Ports must now ensure efficient traffic management, reduce waiting times, enhance cargo processing, and adapt to new geopolitical challenges. Thus, technology may be able to push the boundaries yet again; some proclaim “smart ports” to be the industry’s future. However, before entertaining this notion, one needs to ask – what are smart ports, and how will they change the shipping industry? 


What are smart ports?

As a brief definition, smart ports are ports that use advanced, innovative technologies to enhance their performance. Such technologies include:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • Big data
  • Blockchain
  • Internet of Things (IoT)

As such, there is no one clear, immutable state where ports are definitively “smart”. Rather, ports become “smarter” as they embrace digitalization and continue to evolve. Industry leaders like Joyce Bliek, Director of Digital Business Solutions at the Port of Rotterdam, support this understanding of digitalization. Ms. Bliek specifically refers to such technologies as a “digital twin” of a physical port, which enables such functions as “predictive maintenance [and] birthing”.

Thus, smart ports boast varying degrees of automation, where the “digital twin” collaborates with the physical port and benefits operations. The goal of such technologies, however, is not full automation that removes human oversight. This may be an endeavor for the future, but currently, smart ports rely on collaboration between technology and humans. In essence, this enhanced collaboration is how many industry leaders believe smart ports will change the shipping industry. 


Technologies employed in smart ports

As smart ports embrace digitalization, they employ the aforementioned technologies. Their application arguably holds much promise, and the potential to change the shipping industry in groundbreaking ways.


Artificial Intelligence (AI)

As a cornerstone of Machine Learning (ML), AI can help automate processes and reduce the human margin of error. Complex algorithms can improve over time, using predictive models to better support decision-making across the board.

As for how AI may change the shipping industry, one needs to look no further than smart ports that are already using it. Big ports across the globe, from Singapore to the aforementioned Rotterdam, use ever-evolving AI to improve operations.   


Big data

As operations expand, the volumes of data become too massive to effectively process through traditional data-processing software. Therefore, the field of big data had to rise to the task in this regard, allowing ports to process massive volumes of data and extract valuable information. Some such results can be used for predictive modeling purposes, which the shipping industry can use to improve operations.

Of course, “big data” is a relative term in itself; Wikipedia notes that what constitutes big data “varies depending on the capabilities of the users and their tools, and expanding capabilities make big data a moving target”. However, as massive volumes of data are generated every day, big data can undoubtedly change the shipping industry and prepare it for the future. 


Blockchain

Initially created in 2008 to facilitate the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, Blockchain technology has seen various uses today. As data storage, encryption, and sharing technology, it provides encryption for transaction ledgers, preventing malicious interventions. The logistics industry has identified some such benefits already, albeit with some resistance, as Forbes noted in 2019.

Blockchain sees uses in smart ports today, including the aforementioned. From enhancing security to enabling such concepts as “smart contracts”, it may indeed change the shipping industry in innovative ways. 


Internet of Things (IoT)

Arguably the backbone of smart ports, the IoT is the cornerstone of the port digitalization process. The converging point of various technologies, IoT enables interconnectivity among devices, accelerating data sharing within networks. Thus, many identify its vast potential benefits already, including better real-time tracking and monitoring, reduced operation costs, and more. This new frontier promises to change the shipping industry and is already being explored in such ports as the Port of Algeciras and the Port of Rotterdam.

This creation of “digital twins” to physical ports through IoT enables smart ports to fully realize their potential. Inmarsat notes that IoT is considered a boon to maritime sustainability, with many organizations across the supply chain citing current or expected sustainability benefits. 


Successful smart ports of today

Having discussed what smart ports are and how they will change the shipping industry, one may need examples of successful implementation. Indeed, ports are becoming smarter already, with success stories across the globe. Europe’s two largest ports, the Port of Rotterdam and the Port of Antwerp, are notable examples. 


Port of Rotterdam

The largest port in Europe, the Port of Rotterdam, has fully embraced digitization. With the express goal to “make [the] port even smarter, more efficient, safer, and more sustainable”, it has implemented various smart technologies in recent years. In this endeavor, it has partnered with IBM and other notable partners, expediting the process.

Through its Smart Infrastructure program, it aims to have ships autonomously enter and leave the port by 2030. Furthermore, it already boasts such impressive results as the Maasvlakte. There operates an unmanned container terminal, whose autonomous cranes are fueled by information like object size through a GIS system. 


Port of Antwerp

The second-largest port of Europe behind Rotterdam, the Port of Antwerp has similarly adopted smart technologies in recent years. Perhaps most notably, it has adopted blockchain technology in a way that impacts cargo shipping services.

It now considers a digital 3D map of the port to be its “digital twin”, as it contains actionable real-time information. In conjunction, the use of smart cameras and Computer Vision allows an “intelligent wharf wall” that ensures safe, proper mooring and reduces wait times. Such cameras also use automatic image recognition, which increases security, allows mobility analyses, and optimizes preventative maintenance. Lastly, in 2018, it has adopted a blockchain-based program that allows the digital exchange of phytosanitary certificates. Through this solution, data transmission has been improved, which in turn improved inspection quality and shortened transit times.

James Jackson is a freelance web designer and copywriter. For over 5 years he has written articles on digital marketing and SEO, web design, and the moving industry for various publications. He is also a frequent blog contributor to peasleyboisemovers.com, where he often writes on the challenges of interstate moving.

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