With ports expressing interest in the concept of the Smart Ports, many are looking to understand the latest technology offerings and the benefits they might bring. Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Blockchain, Internet of Things and 5G are just a few of the technologies that are being incorporated into Smart Port operations.  

But it is not always clear what these technologies are or the advantages they might bring to the port business. In my last article we examined Big Data & Blockchain and its potential for use in ports. Now I want to turn the attention to demystifying other aspects of technology – Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G – and explore what they might mean for current and future developments in ports.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

The definition of Artificial Intelligence is constantly changing. As technologies that would once have been considered “AI” become mainstream, they fall out of the broader definition. Optical Character Recognition (OCR), the process of turning images/scans of text into digitised data, is an example of this. New technologies that are currently considered to be Artificial Intelligence include understanding human speech, autonomous vehicle situational awareness and operational simulation and optimisation.

Our jobs aren’t in danger just yet…

The field of Artificial Intelligence is generally split into sub-topics. Common topics that are mentioned in the Smart Ports context include Machine Learning (*ML), Computer Vision and Digital Twin.

In each of these sub-topics, it is possible to develop solutions that, given a set of inputs and a desired outcome, can be trained to understand and take an action. These technologies can perform analysis at a speed and scale far greater than is humanly capable. But while it can generate results faster, AI is often unable to apply sufficient context to the results. Consequently, it is unlikely that AI will replace human presence in a work context for some time.  

Although these tools will support operations, they are currently considered more in terms of Augmenting Intelligence; supplementing the workforce with analytical capabilities to make better decisions within shorter timeframes using a wide range of data. At the next level, it will also be used to greater effect with Prescriptive Analytics, where intelligent systems will be able to evaluate the outcomes of individual actions and identify the optimal solution. This is an area generally referred to as Digital Twins

So how could Artificial Intelligence, in its current form, be used in the port industry?

Solutions are already available in the marketplace using AI to optimise the use of container yards by dynamically analysing and learning from historical and real time container-related data to make automated decisions on yard placement. This can include the use of AI in forecasts on container delivery dates to optimise pre-delivery stacking, as deployed in Hamburg this year.  

One simple way of getting started is in the use of computer vision to recognise and track vehicle types and locations around terminals for unmanned support of roll-on roll off (RoRo) and automotive operations. Computer Vision could also be used in the security and safety context to analyse movement of people for suspicious or unsafe behaviour(s) or to detect compliance with personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements.

What is the Internet of Things?

We are all familiar with the internet – a globally interconnected network of computers that has, over the last 20 years, transformed our way of life. But what is the Internet of Things?

As technology has advanced, so have the devices that we use on a day-to-day basis. The ability to produce computing components (such as processors, data storage and sensors) at smaller scales has led to a proliferation of “smart” devices that enable communication with machines, vehicles, home appliances and buildings.  

Technologists expect that, by the end of this year, we will have over 20 billion connected devices globally, and that number will only grow exponentially. 

These connected devices make up the Internet of Things. The “thing” may be an individual component, such as a sensor attached to a critical part of a machine, or it may be the machine itself. These devices may simply transmit data or exert control over the device, often using AI or Machine Learning to operate efficiently.

However, the real value of IoT lies in the data that is produced. High volumes of streaming data from equipment provides support for decision-making and asset management insight, far beyond that of normal human observation.  

So how does the Internet of Things benefit the port industry? 

Ports are challenging environment for IoT projects, where legacy and remote physical environment can create issues with network infrastructure and wireless communications.

Sustainability is high on everyone’s agenda. Ports are under pressure to reduce their contributions (and that of their users) to environmental damage. Using smart power grids can provide ports with a deep understanding of their energy consumption and identify opportunities to create savings through power management. This is particularly the case when merged with renewable energy generation capabilities, where time-managed storage or sale of energy back to the grid can optimise revenues.

Ports are also full of complex equipment and assets, which are vital to support their ability to service their customers. They can also incur significant lost revenue if failures occur. Using data gathered from sensors located on equipment, it is possible to analyse vehicle telematics and mechanical data such as temperature, pressure and vibration to identify normal operating ranges. When data drifts outside the normal operating range, early action can not only prevent costly remedial work, but also maximise the longevity of the equipment life cycle.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of mobile technology which introduces higher bandwidths with reduced latency. This will support multiple simultaneous connections transferring greater volumes of data at faster speeds, operating on higher frequencies (millimetre wave), using a broad spectrum to offer larger channel capacity. However, one of the biggest challenges of 5G is that millimetre wave signals do not travel as far as those used to deliver 4G. More mast sites will inevitably be required.

There are limiting factors in the national network infrastructure that may initially affect service. During the rollout phase, 5G-enabled devices may rely on 4G to establish the connections before switching to 5G.  5G is also restricted by the wired infrastructure connecting masts to the national infrastructure (also referred to as backhaul). Data transfer rates will only be as fast as the lowest performing element of the network.

In the past, mobile technology was driven by enhancement of the consumer experience. Currently, there is limited consumer demand, but business demands for Industry 4.0 may give 5G the boost it requires. Ports seeking to capitalise on the technology may choose to overcome the limitations of national infrastructure by implementing private 5G networks.

5G in action

The first successful demonstration of 5G was during the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Here, live streaming video from bobsleds and concurrent 360-degree feeds of the figure skating rink were used to highlight the capacity of the networks. Although much of the demonstration revolved around the transfer of video, it is anticipated that 5G will be transformative across industry.  

Globally there are numerous trials under way to evaluate the technology. Autonomous vehicles, drones and robotics are all fields where the technology is expected to have a significant impact due to the high data transfer speeds and low latency which enable real-time decision making.  

What can 5G offer the port industry?

The technology is ideal for the high-velocity transfer of real time data from sensors and smart devices, particularly video. 

For ports, the ability to capture and monitor continuous streams of Big Data (sensor data and video) from the IoT (operational equipment, video cameras, networks of sensors) and use Augmented Intelligence to deliver strategic and operational insights at the right speed and time, can give any port a competitive advantage.

Following on from our exploration of Big Data and Blockchain, with Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things and 5G we have the tools and the infrastructure through which the future of smart ports will be realised.  

In our next article, we will explore exactly how ports can get started with these different technologies. In the meantime, if you want to know more, or discuss the implications of these technologies, get in touch with a member of our team today.

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