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5 Technologies that can help create the ports of the future

How Wireless Private Networks create the foundation for smart ports.

Smart Ports Creativity

In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions have become a fact of life. Situated at the heart of global logistics and distribution, ports continue to face interruptions from labour, weather, and world events that have a direct effect on their operations and profitability. As the hub for multiple types of transportation (ship, rail, trucking), port operations will have to comply with tighter environmental regulations as government and the public increase the focus on sustainability.

Port operators have made significant advances in  operational efficiency, enhancing their performance by leveraging a suite of technologies that include the Internet of Things (IoT), AI and edge computing. While the solutions themselves are diverse, they are all built on a foundation of pervasive connectivity.

Ports are large areas that feature challenging conditions for wireless signals, like stacks of containers. With the advent of 5G technology, robust, secure and reliable wireless communications can provide the necessary connectivity, while a Wireless Private Network (WPN) can help ensure that it is available throughout the port.

Here we explore 5 use cases that can help accelerate the creation of the ports of the future:

  1. Automation and Remote Control
  2. Worker Safety
  3. Predictive Maintenance
  4. Drone Surveillance & Delivery
  5. Interoperability for Intermodal Transport

1. Automation and Remote Control

Automation and remote control have been part of port operations for some time. This has mainly involved automated rail-mounted gantry cranes (usually used to provide horizontal quay-to-yard container transfer) or Rubber Tired Gantry cranes (RTGs) on complex beacon networks. Some ports have also used automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) on transponder networks. This equipment requires very low latency communications, since the remote operator or the software controlling it need to be able to respond almost instantaneously to any situation. Remote control can also require the ability to process video from cameras on the equipment. (There can be 15 or more cameras on an automated RTG, for example.)

Today this equipment is usually connected a combination of WiFi and fibre optic cables. The physical cables or beacon networks running this equipment are hard to scale up as a port adds or changes equipment, and lack the flexibility to easily adapt as needs and conditions at the port change.

Technical advances in sensors and software, as well as edge and cloud computing, have greatly expanded the potential role of automation. But these advances absolutely require low network latency. Automating RTGs, for example, means that latency and jitter need to be reduced as much as possible. Automated and remote-control equipment of all types requires high bandwidth to transmit sensor and operational data, a reliable connection to ensure continued operations, and robust security to protect the integrity of port operations.

A WPN can meet all these needs, providing coverage throughout the port site that is optimized for very low latency and enhanced uplink capability. This can free equipment from cabling and beacon networks, making remote controlled or automated operations viable throughout the port.

2. Worker Safety

Ports operate at all hours and in all types of weather. Port workers have to carry out manually demanding tasks regardless of the time or the conditions. They do this work around heavy cargo, automated machinery, and potentially dangerous goods. Ensuring worker safety is a priority for every port.

Providing wireless coverage throughout the entire yard can help promote safer operations. Smart personal protection equipment (PPE) and wearable, connected sensor and communication devices can ensure that port operators always know a worker’s location. Smart PPE can monitor a worker’s vital signs, report a man down situation or a worker who has stopped moving. Sensors can monitor for dangers like hazardous gasses, and alert workers in the event a hazard is detected. Operators can co-ordinate the movement of workers and machines, and use geo-fencing to alert workers to high traffic areas.

WPN is ideally suited to providing pervasive wireless coverage that is capable of reaching workers no matter where they are within the port. A private network can be designed to deal with hard-to-reach areas and the numerous elements in a port that are constantly changing, so that workers can stay connected no matter where their jobs take them.

3. Predictive Maintenance

Traditionally, port equipment is maintained based on set schedules. This is still the case at many if not most ports. The condition of some equipment is evaluated through the monitoring of temperature or vibration, but this task is most often performed manually by port operations personnel.

Today, connected sensors can greatly enhance condition monitoring capabilities, and make better predictive maintenance possible. Factors such as temperature and vibration can be monitored remotely for a wide variety of port assets, including cranes, AGVs and stacks of containers.

Advanced analysis by artificial intelligence and machine learning models can establish a baseline to help identify possible future equipment failure. When an anomaly is detected – for example, a vibration sensor detects unexpected movement – a worker can be dispatched to investigate and resolve any issues.

This proactive monitoring not only helps prevent potential failures, reducing downtime due to unscheduled maintenance, it can also help optimize the performance of port equipment. Thanks to the constant monitoring of the condition of engines and mechanical components, very precise maintenance schedules can be created that ensure resources are being directed to where they are really needed.

Using AI and machine learning software deployed at the edge, data collected from a variety of port equipment can be captured, updated, and analysed to enable advanced prediction tools that can help reduce equipment downtime - saving costs and extending their lifecycle. Once again, a WPN is ideally suited to providing not only the range but also the density of coverage that predictive maintenance requires.

4. Drone Surveillance & Delivery

Ports are typically required to deliver papers and documentation to ships before they reach the dock. This is traditionally done by sending a tugboat or launch out to the ship, even when a single envelope or piece of paper is all that’s required.  When a ship docks, ports are required to ensure that it has not been damaged. This typically requires, at least in part, a visual inspection to be carried out by port personnel.

Another traditional challenge for ports is security. Cargo thefts not only hurt a port’s bottom line, but also result in further supply chain disruptions.

Drones can help solve both of these problems. Equipped with cameras that enable computer vision and 3D sensors, drones can be connected by wireless networks to inspect incoming ships and collect real-time data about events and conditions around the port facility.

Using drones enables workers at the port to do more with what they have. Rather than dispatching workers to investigate ships or respond to alerts, drones can collect data and stream it back to operations personnel or advanced analytic software to help detect damage to ships and unauthorized people or vehicles moving around the port. This can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cuts costs, and help protect worker safety all at once.

 A wireless private network enables high-resolution video from the drone cameras, as well as providing accurate positioning data and very low latency signals to ensure remote operators can respond quickly. This reduces the time that surveillance and inspection take, freeing up personnel resources for other key tasks.

5. Interoperability for Intermodal Transport

At the height of the pandemic, when supply chain issues were at their worst, businesses started to insist on more transparency in their supply chain. They wanted to know where the goods they needed were so that they could make alternate supply arrangements if they had to. Many ports are still working with paper forms, which made it difficult if not impossible for their intermodal transportation partners to provide their customers with the information they were demanding.

Digitizing port information can go well beyond turning a paper form into an electronic one (though that step can also be made much easier with remote, handheld devices that can be reviewed and updated throughout the yard). Real-time connections to all the key assets in the port – equipment like cranes and RTGs, containers, rail and trucking connections – can help ensure that accurate data is always available. Handheld devices that can not only process forms but also provide Push-to-Talk radio and even image or video capabilities to ensure that workers can exchange data with port operations personnel.

This very accurate, up to the minute picture can also help make the exchange of goods between ships, trains and trucks more efficient, further enhancing the smooth flow of goods. Eliminating manual identification and monitoring of the large volume of vehicles that enter and exit ports also helps improve the safety and efficiency of port operations.

This requires the type of pervasive, high-bandwidth and highly reliable connectivity that WPN is ideally suited to provide.


To get the benefits from all of the use cases detailed above, a port can deploy a single network – a WPN. Bringing this wide variety of operational technologies onto a single network in itself makes operations more efficient by reducing the number and type of networks that need to be maintained, and makes it easier for disparate applications to share data. What’s more, once a private network is in place, it can be expanded and adapted for even more use cases and make integration with intermodal partners even easier.