Streamlining movements at ports through upgraded communications

Helping ports to effectively upgrade data communications will grow the UK maritime sector and support the economy, says Tom Webster, Lead Systems Engineer at Connected Places Catapult.

With Great Britain being an island, ports are vital to our economy. They handle 95% of our imports and exports, and employ about 125,000 people. There are significant opportunities for innovation to deliver improvements and growth both in ports themselves and also for the country as a whole.

But the port sector operates on very low margins and doesn’t have many reserves to trial new ways of doing things. Support is needed to break down the barriers and risks to implementing new technology, to help the sector realise its full potential.

Ports are a hub for the movement of goods and people, interchanging them between sea and inland transportation. For goods, this involves a lot of machinery such as cranes and carriers to move and secure containers. The scale is epic with a single large container ship carrying over 200,000 tonnes of cargo in over 20,000 containers. These all have to be moved, processed and stored  at facilities in the port.

The operation of ports involves many inter-related stakeholders, including vessel and inland transport operators moving the goods in and out of ports. In addition, there are overseeing authorities like His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs performing frontier controls. Furthermore, there are freight forwarders managing the movement of goods, including processes such as paying customs duties.

Good data communications are vital for the smooth running between all the elements of infrastructure and processes as part of a modern transport system. There are, however, several barriers relating to data communications at ports.

Firstly, tracking the movement of goods through ports is a challenge. Congestion of goods is a major issue for port operations, affecting ship turnaround times and creating a bottleneck for a port’s throughput. Tracking data is an issue for the wider supply chain too: currently freight forwarders have problems getting reliable information on which terminal their goods will arrive at and when. This can cause them to take too long collecting the consignment and having to pay additional storage fees.

Effective tracking of goods improves movement; co-ordination reduces processing times, and ultimately increases throughput of ports and streamlines the end-to-end movement of goods.

Secondly, providing good data connectivity is particularly challenging at ports: stacks of metal containers, for instance, can block out radio transmissions. Reserving private bandwidth on cellular networks is a potential solution because cellular signals have much more power than Wi-Fi, therefore providing more coverage and penetration. The rollout of 5G cellular systems offers faster data rates that remain competitive with Wi-Fi, and can offer improved security and quality of service.

If port operators back increased cellular coverage in ports, this can provide the connectivity required for freight forwarders to track their consignments in real time and optimise end-to-end freight logistics.

Thirdly, as electronic communications are increasingly adopted and relied upon this, in turn, heightens the risks from cyber attacks. Port operators and service providers therefore need to ensure they constantly develop their cybersecurity.

Bringing together port operators and the technology supply chain

To better understand the challenges in exchanging data, and set out a future vision of what communication technologies could be developed to support ports of the future, Connected Places Catapult has convened stakeholders including port operators and academics to develop a piece of work called ‘The Future of Communications as an Enabler at Ports’.

We’re seeking to highlight the key challenges experienced by port stakeholders associated with data communications, and link these to a horizon scan of communication technologies that may help to fulfil needs.

Our aims are to help build understanding between operators and communications suppliers on needs and opportunities and provide a voice for port stakeholders to outline potential next steps that would help to overcome their current issues and barriers.

As global trade and transport systems increasingly become digitalised, UK ports must adapt and improve their electronic communications in order to remain competitive on the international stage and improve the management of the movement of goods.

If we can collectively raise our game and improve the flow of data and exchange of communications in ports, the economic prize could be huge.

Look out for our report to be published next month, titled ‘The Future of Communications as an Enabler at Ports’.