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Port of Rotterdam on course for self-driving ships by 2030

Port of Rotterdam wants to be the world’s smartest port with Internet of Things sensors and a data management platform combined with powerful analytics.  By 2030, the port authority wants to allow autonomous ships in port to unload and load goods.

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You’ve heard of self-driving cars, but what about self-driving ships?

Port of Rotterdam wants to be the world’s smartest port by 2030

Port of Rotterdam on course for self-driving ships by 2030

You’ve heard of self-driving cars, but what about self-driving ships?

Auto-pilot technology is already used for many jet plane flights and some long-distance trucking runs, but those approaches typically require a pilot or driver to be seated nearby. Robot carts already move about manufacturing floors and some hospitals without human drivers. Now the naval shipping industry wants in on the game.

In fact, the largest port in Europe, Port of Rotterdam, has set 2030 as the year when autonomous vessels will interact, almost seamlessly with those operated by people.


Destination: World’s smartest port


To reach that goal, port officials have set about creating the world’s smartest port. The port authority and IBM and Cisco have begun to collaborate on a multi-year effort to use Internet of Things sensors and devices, along with Wi-Fi and cellular communications, to get there.


A central dashboard will collect and process real-time water and weather sensor data, securely connected by Cisco Kinetic and analysed through the IBM Watson IoT platform, according to Vincent Campfens, business consultant for the port authority.


The goal is safer and more efficient traffic management at the port. In addition to IBM and Cisco, ESRI is providing its geographic information system for location and 3D mapping. Axians will connect the physical sensors in the field with the digital world in the cloud.


Calculating conditions


By having access to data about visibility, wind speed and direction, height of tide, salinity of water, tides and currents, the port will calculate the ideal conditions for ships to enter the port and the optimal clearance heights for ships. That, in turn, will help lower costs for both the port and the more than 130,000 ships that use the port each year.


“Calm water and weather conditions allow for lower fuel consumption rates, facilitate cost-effective per-ship payloads and help ensure the safe arrival of cargo,” Campfens said.


The port hasn’t publicly announced a price tag on the overall project, but analysts expect the smart port project to cost many millions of Euros in both capital and operating costs.


An ‘economic lifeline’


“The port of Rotterdam is one of the most advanced in the world,” Gartner analyst Bettina Tratz-Ryan said via email. “The port is a lifeline for Dutch industry.”


Because it is a part of the city of Rotterdam in the South Holland Province of the Netherlands, the port is responsible for its ship traffic pollution, energy usage and labour – added incentives for the technology upgrades.

Recently, the port endorsed an International Maritime Organization goal to reduce CO2 emissions from shipping by at least 50% by 2050. Smart digital solutions will increase the logistical efficiency of shipping, the port said.


“Data orchestration will be a key enabler for the capability to sense depth and harbour water level conditions so that deep container ships can enter,” Tratz-Ryan added. That information will be critical to allowing autonomous vessels to enter the port as well.


Berthing of ships and loading and unloading of containers will also be done autonomously using artificial intelligence to optimise cargo movements, said Tratz-Ryan, who has been briefed on the project as far back as 2016.


In addition, a business platform will display needed information for shipping companies to use, giving them intelligence about warehouses, logistics, environmental protection, and traffic. Active sensing will need to be linked to the business process management of harbour operations.


“There is an open question of how data orchestration will serve the business and service models,” Tratz-Ryan said. “That answer will [come] through IoT platforms and logic, in order to be able to define which data standards, edge computing and machine learning framework should be applied to drive autonomous operation.”


First steps


Recent announcements by the port, IBM and Cisco “look like a first step in a future proof ecosystem architecture that combines industrial development together with sustainable business and urban development,” Tratz-Ryan added.


The port explained in a recent IBM blog that it plans to create a digital twin of the 42 kilometre port using IBM IoT. There will be an exact digital replication of port operations to mirror weather and ship movements at the port with 100% accuracy.

With that digital twin, the port can test out scenarios to better define operational efficiencies.

For example, during the complex operation of berthing a ship, all the parties involved will be able to view operations at the same time, yielding a one-hour reduction in berthing time. That one-hour time savings will average $80,000 in savings for the ship operator and allow the port to dock more ships each day.


Shipping companies will also be able to use accurate weather and water data to predict the best time to enter the port based on the most favorable conditions.


“Digital dolphins”


In addition to navigation insights, the port has created a manufacturing lab using 3D printing to create spare industrial parts. A robotic welding arm applies high-quality metal layer-by-layer to create ship components such as propellers quickly.


For many parts, a traditional manufacturing process might last as long as eight weeks, but the port anticipates it could be reduced to 200 hours.


The port is also erecting smart quay walls called “digital dolphins” and sensor-equipped buoys to support ship-to-ship cargo transfer. As the transfer of cargo takes place, data will be generated to provide a time-stamp of the process for greater management efficiency. Machine learning will be applied to learn from data patterns generated by the sensors so port operators have accurate insights on the port’s overall infrastructure.


Focus on safety


An important dimension of the port’s move to new technology is safety. “This project is also about safety, collision prevention and personal safety – as well as responses to catastrophes," said Dan Pietro, head of alliances at Cisco IoT, in an interview. “We’re using digital cameras and sensors and traffic management to avoid that kind of [safety] issue.”


As part of its Kinetic management platform, Cisco will provide smart and ruggedised routers and switches in the port to run compute loads from the sensors at the network edge. That approach gives immediate feedback in sub-seconds, with the data then sent to the cloud.

 

“It’s much bigger analytics than before,” Pietro said. “There’s an efficient flow of data across the entire network topology, with compute workflows right on the network infrastructure. We want to minimise complexity.”


Cisco Kinetic and and IBM Watson IoT were integrated in 2017 in a six-year partnership that will be used by other ports and industrial operations.


Pietro believes autonomous ships can be made safer with the digital approach being deployed in Rotterdam. Just as advocates of self-driving cars argue that such technology will improve safety, the same applies to ships.

 

“Connected cars are very different from connected ships,” he noted.

Recent concerns over accidents involving self-driving car pilots in some US cities haven’t slowed interest in the benefits from IoT approaches being tested and used by IBM and Cisco in ports.


“With autonomous ships, one key focus is on much greater levels of safety,” Pietro said.

Pronto app


The port recently launched an application called Pronto to help cut the waiting time by 20% for ships in port. Shipping companies, agents, service providers and operators will have a joint platform to use to exchange information about a ship’s arrival and berthing and unloading or loading of goods.


The app relies on a global standard approved in 2017 for different types of nautical and port information. Shell tested the app last year and discovered its ships left port 20% faster than before because of better planning.


Pronto and the IoT initiative “both started from a different perspective, although in the future they will be part of the same digital journey of a ship,” Campfens said.


“Rotterdam aims to be the world’s smartest port. To maintain our leading position, we need to keep on innovating.”

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