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Rotterdam prepares for autonomous shipping

IBM will use AI, IoT, digital dolphins, 3D metal printing and other technologies to model the port of the future

The Port of Rotterdam manages more than 461 million tons of cargo annually
The Port of Rotterdam manages more than 461 million tons of cargo annually

The Port of Rotterdam Authority and IBM have partnered on a multi-year digitisation initiative to transform the port’s operational environment using Internet of Things (IoT) technologies in preparation for autonomous shipping.


The initiative will prepare the port’s entire 42km site to host connected ships as it bids to become the world’s smartest port. Cisco and Axians are also involved in the project.


It begins with the development of a centralised dashboard application that will collect and process real-time water (hydro), weather (meteo) sensor data and communications data, analysed by IBM IoT technologies. The partners claim this will enable a new wave of safer and more efficient traffic management at the port.


“Here in Rotterdam, we are taking action to become the smartest port in the world,” said Paul Smits, chief financial officer of the Port of Rotterdam Authority.


“Speed and efficiency is essential to our business and requires us to use all of the data available to us. Thanks to real-time information about infrastructure, water, air, we can enormously improve the service we provide to everyone who uses the port, and prepare to embrace the connected, autonomous shipping of the future.”


As the largest port in Europe, the Port of Rotterdam handles over 461 million tonnes of cargo and more than 140,000 vessels annually. Previously the port relied on traditional radio and radar communication between captains, pilots, terminal operators, tugboats and more to make key decision on port operations.


As the port begins its digital transformation, sensors are being installed across 42km of land and sea – spanning from the city of Rotterdam into the North Sea – along the port’s quay walls, mooring posts and roads. These sensors will gather multiple data streams including hydro and meteo data about tides and currents, temperature, wind speed and direction, water levels, berth availability and visibility.


This data will be analysed by IBM’s cloud-based IoT technologies and turned into information that the port can use to make decisions that reduce wait times, determine optimal times for ships to dock, load and unload, and enable more ships into the available space. For example, it will now be able to predict the best time, based on water level, to have a ship arrive and depart Rotterdam, ensuring that the maximum amount of cargo is loaded on board.


Key aspects of the announcement are:

  • A single dashboard powered by IBM IoT technologies: will display real-time data from multiple parties – the terminal operator, the captain of the ship, the port – enabling a new wave of safer and more efficient traffic management at the port, to benefit the port and those who use it
  • Cost savings for the port and shipping companies: shipping companies and the port stand to save up to one hour in berthing time, which can amount to about $80,000 per hour in savings. When multiplied across the 140,000 ships entering the port every year, this means that the port will be able to dock more ships while shipping companies reduce costs each time they dock
  • Digital dolphins, smart quay walls and sensor-equipped buoys, will provide insights on the condition and utilisation of a berthing terminal and the surrounding water and weather conditions, enabling port operators to identify the optimal time for ships to dock, and where and when they can do so
  • 3D metal-printing in the shipyards of RDM Rotterdam: as part of a multi-partner initiative, IBM cognitive IoT technology is being infused into a production process, which uses a robotic welding arm to apply high-quality metal layer-by-layer to create ship components such as propellers, on-demand and faster than ever before – from six to eight weeks to just 200 hours.

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