The Scope of Automation In The Shipping Industry

Due to its complex nature—with hundreds of operators involved —the shipping industry is slower than most when adopting emergent technologies to expedite the shipping process. Fully automated terminals currently handle less than 10% of container volume.

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 provide novel solutions to 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.


Specialized robots programmed for the task can take over when cargo is offloaded. Both stacking cranes and cargo handlers have been automated substantially in several 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 several 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.

Ship-to-shore cranes

Today, most ports utilize a mixture of unstaffed and staffed 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 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, and verifications of identity.

Smart Vessels?

Automation isn’t just limited to ports. It’s predicted that the future container vessels won’t just have more capacity but that they will also be autonomous. An entirely crewless 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 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.

Meanwhile, there are many stop-gap designs before reaching an utterly autonomous vessel. From remote-controlled ships to partially automated ships, 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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