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The advent of 5G has unlocked an entire world of possibilities for several sectors, one of which is the maritime industry.

5G boasts massive connectivity, high throughput, ultra-low latency and super-fast speeds which meet the requirements for emerging technologies to function properly.

Ports play an instrumental role in regional development and international trade for every national which is why ensuring operational efficiency in ports is key. In fact, about 90% of global trade relies on the maritime sector.

“Shipping carries around 90% of world trade, making it the blood life of the global economy. Amid challenges posed by shifts in economic activity and tightening regulations, the maritime industry continues to seek means to answer the imperative call to digitalization,” said Yeow Hui Leng, group project director of Asia Pacific Maritime (APM) conference.

The fourth industrial revolution has provided ports with the promise of transformation and digitalization. With the rise of 5G, telcos across the world could help further the development of sustainable, environment-friendly smart ports.

In order to ensure operational efficiency within smart ports, there must be reliable communications systems which support 5G networks. This is because the network needs to be able to handle control data and multi-channel video data of the port’s equipment. Legacy networks are a thing of the past and the maritime sector must now look ahead and adopt emerging tech.

Tackling industry-wide challenges

Ports have long faced challenges pertaining to labor costs, harsh working environments, insufficient personnel and heavy labor intensity. Emerging tech such as artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), big data analytics, autonomous driving and 5G might just be the solutions to these problems.  

According to the International Maritime Information website, around 75% of port operators believe that automation is absolutely critical to the industry as it will help maintain competitiveness within the next few years. In addition to this, they also found that 65% of port operators consider automation to be the key to achieving operational security and efficiency.

Deploying 5G in ports would not only increase competitiveness but it will ensure logistical efficiency and in turn, reduce costs. The use of information technologies has been proven to be extremely beneficial for ports.

At the moment, there are many smart ports across the world which have been using automation to a certain degree. However, since shipping throughput has been increasing every year, ports must undergo consistent digital transformation to ensure that their automation is on par with these increases.

3GPP has already identified maritime communications as a future use case for 5G standardization activities.

The use of 5G in an ultra-dense shipboard environment could be particularly promising. In the case of terrestrial systems, 5G could provide enhanced coverage which would enable ‘massive IoT’. This refers to extended connectivity to thousands of IoT-powered devices within the same area. 5G has the ability to support such a proliferation of connected devices in one given area which 4G cannot.

This could also be applicable to vast container ships that carry freight across seas. A great deal of companies have discussed equipping containers with IoT capabilities in an effort to effectively monitor goods in transit. In short, the industry plans to create floating islands which will essentially contain vast amounts of IoT-powered devices and it would be compounded by also equipping the goods with IoT devices whilst they are being transported. The ships involved in these operations may end up having over 100,000 devices and 5G is the right fit to deal with and support this.

Remote control of cranes

Remote control of cranes could be highly beneficial under 5G as it will ensure real-time management. Some of the most common cranes in container terminals are rail-mounted gantry crans (RMG) and rubber-tired gantry cranes (RTG).

RMG cranes moves around on tracks which are present in a container yard and RTG cranes have tires built into them which permit them to move in a more flexible manner. Due to this, RTG cranes are more widely are more popular and are present in a majority of existing terminals while RMG cranes are more popular in new terminals.

Restructuring the manner in which these cranes are controlled will be quite easy and a great deal more efficient. Remotely controlling them addresses the high demand for manual labor. Manual labor in this situation isn’t ideal because working conditions could be quite difficult, workers may grow tired quickly and all in all, it could pose a safety hazard. However, when controlled remotely with 5G networks, the cranes could be controlled on a 24-hour basis with little to no interruption, provided the remote crane operators work in an efficient manner, of course.

On the technology side, cameras and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) which would be installed on the gantry cranes themselves, will allow for precise movement, lifting and container pickup. 5G, in this situation, provides high bandwidth and ultra-low latency to ensure that video footage is uploaded almost instantaneously to allow for more reliable PLC communications.

Video surveillance

Building on the topic of video surveillance in the smart port scenario, it could be applied to facial recognition, container monitoring, and robot and UAV patrol.

More specifically, containers could be identified based on AI-powered crane cameras and automatic cargo tally. In terms of security, facial recognition could analyze the operators’ facial expressions which would indicate whether the person is tired, worried, stressed, sleepy or alarmed. This provides incredible insight and adds an even greater layer of convenience to the port’s operations.

As for operation management, AI could not only be used for facial recognition, but also cargo recognition and license plate recognition.

5G is great for this because at the moment, fiber optic networks are not able to be deployed in most port areas. 5G’s large bandwidth and immense connectivity capabilities could support the backhaul of multi-channel videos and sensor data in high definition. This, coupled with AI and edge computing could automate a wide range of tasks which would in turn cut costs and ensure greater intelligence, operational excellence and efficiency.

Remote pilotage

Autonomous vessels have been discussed for quite some time now. These unmanned vessels enable ships to spend more time at sea. Not only that, but it also increases productivity and reduces the reliance on a human subject which inherently makes it less prone to human error.

Sanna Sonninen, pilotage director of Finnpilot Pilotage, said: “Technology and solutions for commercially viable concepts of autonomous ships and remote control of ship operations have been developed and tested by various organizations. Though these are excellent showcases, public sentiment on the autonomous shipping development, the various levels of autonomy or remote operation is often mixed.”

It is feasible to say that 5G will make this a more widely adopted reality given its low latency and enablement of real-time communication.

“Digitalization presents many opportunities and advantages for industry players, but it can only reach its full potential when data flows are seamless,” said Kenneth Lim, chief technology officer, Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA).

Morten Lind-Olsen, CEO, Dualog, agreed that there is a growing focus on utilization of consolidated data for both business and compliance purposes.

“Data needs to be standardized when generated for more efficient collection, processing and analysis, to deliver the value of timely decision-making. This focus is increasing day by day and certainly requires more digitally integrated ships,” said Morten Lind-Olsen, CEO of Dualog.

Adding that, “The shipping industry has the advantage and tradition of trading within global established regulations and legislations.” The use of 5G in smart ports is an emerging space which holds great potential. 5G will ensure on-board connectivity and coverage which is absolutely instrumental to managing the ultra-dense needs of connected cargo in vast amounts.

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