Due to its complex nature—with hundreds of operators involved —the shipping industry is slower than most when it comes to adopting emergent technologies to expedite the shipping process. Less than 10% of container volume is currently handled by terminals that are fully automated.
However, the demand for lower shipping costs is constant. And over the last decade, the industry is slowly but surely implementing more efficient ways of controlling ports and terminals. What is port automation and how has it changed shipping as we know it? Let’s find out.
What is Port Automation?
There is no one homogenous definition of an automated—or ‘smart’—port. The term refers to a bevy of integrated technologies that come together to provide novel solutions port traffic control and trade flows. What this does is that it enables ports to handle more shipments on a given day, week, or year, maximizing its efficiency.
There are three main pillars of port automation: inventories, ship-to-shore cranes, and port gate automation. Let’s look at each individually.
When cargo is offloaded, specialized robots, which have been programmed for the task, can take over. Both stacking cranes and cargo handlers have been automated to a very large degree in a number of ports. At the same time, they have been designed to allow for a level of human interaction to error-correct. These robots can stack containers based on a number of pre-programmed categories and are aware of the dimensions of the packages they are handling. Cloud-technology proliferation has also allowed multiple machines to coordinate with each other so that there is no overlap in their schedules and routes.
Today, most ports utilize a mixture of unmanned and manned cranes for cargo unloading. This means that the technology for full automation is already there; it just requires more investment in the long-term.
These cranes use the Internet of Things (IoT) to relay and communicate information, carrying containers to the port and classifying them systematically. They are incredibly efficient and prone to very few errors.
Port gate automation
A port is only as good as its adherence to protocol and its stringent security measures. While not every port gate process should be automated (due to the risk of cyber security and fraud), many can be. These include docking payments that use NFC, logs of exit and entry, as well as verifications of identity.
Automation isn’t just limited to ports. It’s predicted that the container vessels of the future won’t just have more capacity, but that they will also be autonomous. An entirely unmanned ship is the Holy Grail of shipment; with only a contingency crew required to deal with any emergencies that may arise.
These vessels aren’t just a pie in the sky either; the first prototypes are already being worked on. Wireless monitoring and other cloud-based technologies will constantly transmit ship diagnostic data to the terminal, ensuring that everything is in order.
In the meanwhile, there are many stop-gap designs before we reach a completely autonomous vessel. From remote-controlled ships to a partially automated ship, the future is promising.
Cargo Shipping International is an international freight forwarding company based in Rotterdam. We provide our clients with cargo shipping, Ro-Ro, and break-bulk shipment services.
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