Smart and visible
Tech support: AT&T is involved in a number of port-related IoT projects. Credit: AT&T
What does the Internet of Things bring to ports, asks Felicity Landon
Imagine a container that communicates its status and where it’s going to those that need to know – and, if it misses a connection, takes the initiative and books another slot. That is a measure of the way in which the Internet of Things could transform the ports and logistics sector.
Or, to use the words of Mike Dempsey, vice president of container and port solutions at ORBCOMM: “The container supply chain has been dumb, dark and disconnected; our job is to make it smart, visible and connected.”
Perhaps the first point to emphasise is that the Internet of Things isn’t an abstract technology promise of the future; it’s here now. “It is a simple concept of getting inanimate objects to communicate across the Internet. As for the challenge of deploying IoT – many places have quietly gone ahead and done it, in places where you might not expect. For example, in Africa, where security, customs issues and corruption are a problem and there are chances for theft; they may in fact be far ahead in terms of IoT technology adoption. In every case, adoption is driven by demand.”
For visible examples, Maersk Line has deployed IoT technology to monitor a fleet of nearly 300,000 reefer containers. Los Angeles-Long Beach deployed RFID for its Clean Truck programme. “That’s a form of IoT and an early example of where they needed to mitigate traffic and move trucks through the gates faster,” says Mr Dempsey.
Ports and the various stakeholders within them – container terminals, port authorities, oil, bulk and general cargo terminals – have different challenges and therefore different benefits to derive from the IoT, he says. But the top one on everyone’s mind is security in ports.
“Whether container or tanker, it’s things talking and telling us about their location, position, status, etc. It is being able to put on an electronic seal to identity the container – that is a critical piece of IoT that people across ports are looking for.”
For example, in Santos: “There are space constraints, so they want to move bonded full containers off the terminal into bonded warehousing further inland. They have to assure Customs that these boxes are secure, so putting a seal on is critical. There is a lot of work ongoing in South America on the placement of security seals as the product moves across country or into another country, to ensure security in transit.”
In terms of throughput and productivity, IoT technology can be used to mitigate traffic congestion – by identifying the location of trucks as they notify, tracking any gaps in the system and using the information to make fast decisions on whether a truck should come into the port or wait where it is. “At the port level, being able to optimise the flow of goods and traffic is very critical,” says Mr Dempsey.
IoT will also be adopted for container tracking within the terminal, as well as identifying where handling equipment is and tracking its performance. Data fed to a central monitoring station can be analysed to improve performance, maintenance and repair. Reefer monitoring will also benefit – with devices feeding back information on whether the power has been on or off and what the temperature has been. And finally, Mr Dempsey expects to see AIS being extended to yachts and small boats in ports.
Dennis Dortland, innovation consultant at Portbase, the Dutch port community system, describes IoT as an umbrella term. “Really, it consists of a lot of things and the term has been introduced relatively recently, when actually a lot of things were already going on and working; now, suddenly, they are IoT.”
In essence, he says, IoT describes devices that are connected and provide data, and it is this data which is so crucial. “You can start to learn things with the data you measure and analyse. For example, a bridge; you can have sensors measuring temperature, strain, traffic, and you can plan your maintenance accordingly. Perhaps you might start sensing certain vibrations – they could be a signal that something might be about to happen, and you can respond fast. So asset management is a major benefit; to know what your asset is actually doing means you can plan the maintenance better and prevent incidents instead of only responding to an incident when it has happened.”
Second, he says, the future of logistics will be a ‘totally different thing’. “Containers and all the cargo in them will be IoT connected devices which will communicate their status and where they need to go. If a container misses a connection, it can even take the initiative and book another modality by itself.”
The more you can measure and know what is going on, the more you can recognise patterns and make better and faster decisions based on actual circumstances – right down to ‘personal decisions’ on what is best for a specific container, says Mr Dortland.
Can IoT improve the performance of a port? Undoubtedly, he says. “Take reefers; if you can monitor the real time temperature and be alerted whenever it approaches a certain threshold or something is wrong, you can proactively do something about it. That can decrease wasted cargo. Whatever business you are in, sensors that communicate can transform business processes and enable new ways of working which get value out of your assets.”
Yes, IoT technology can minimise downtime and maximise utilisation of an asset and it can provide technical, commercial and operational benefits – but the real value is far greater than simply applying it to the way you currently operate your assets, says futurist KD Adamson, chief executive of the Futurenautics Group.
The port of the future will be part of the intelligent transport system, she says. “A port today is effectively there to service ships. In the future, the opportunities would be to act as a hyper-connected seatropolis. We are not just looking at it in terms of ships, but beyond it. There are immediate applications in terms of productivity and efficiency – of course there are. But the really big deal is that these technologies are beginning to break down barriers between vertical markets,” she says.
“Demand outlook will change and the way we operate logistics generally will change. Modes of transportation will develop and automate. The value of these technologies isn’t in applying them to today’s business model – it is very often how you bring value in changing the business model in the future.
“For example, Hotpoint or Electrolux; they manufacture washing machines, but are saying – let’s have a discussion about developing laundry as a service to people who don’t want to load the washing machine. Four years ago when you talked about having automated/unmanned ships within the decade, everyone threw tomatoes at you. But actually what we are seeing is exponential growth, powering changes in direction and development – because commercially, that is the only way to go.
“The question is whether ports are going to adopt this stuff. They are going to have to, or they will be left behind. If you don’t step on that exponential curve, you will get left behind fast, and the gap will wide so quickly that you can’t catch up.”
OPEN FRAMEWORK FOCUS OF EC PROJECT
The INTER-IoT project, funded by the European Commission, is working to design, implement and test an all-level open framework, a methodology and tools to ensure interoperability between the range of diverse IoT platforms.
As well as the interoperability of systems from different port companies, it is considering improving security in data exchange, increasing automated systems that can share data, using real-time data to offer new services, monitoring all the resources in a company’s facilities, and energy saving from the optimisation of processes.
Four pilot projects are under way, looking at digitalisation of access control, traffic and operational assistance; the speed of reporting, locating and responding to an accident; dynamic lighting to save energy; and wind gusts detection to improve safety.
Pablo Gimenez, technical project manager at Valenciaport Foundation, a partner in INTER-IoT, says: “The potential benefits to the Port of Valencia should the IoT be fully realised are significant. Presently, the port uses different systems and applications to manage and monitor its entire infrastructure, such as environmental sensors, automatic access doors and the Port Community System, which do not always communicate with each other. Having an IoT platform providing secure access to all its systems would improve the operational performance and data quality and would enable us to save costs.”
Another benefit would be the real-time monitoring of all the elements of the supply chain within its facilities such as trucks and even containers, he says.
There are downsides, however – given that all devices and systems would be available online, improvements to security systems would be vital, he points out.