Delivering the Transition to Smart UK Ports Webinar Overview

Connected Places Catapult in collaboration with Royal HaskoningDHV and five leading UK ports have detailed a series of smart ports use cases alongside its new Freeports Playbook during a virtual event on Wednesday 17th March attended by over 300 delegates.

Their event brought together expert representatives from the five ports along with Government and cross-sector representatives to discuss the implementation routes for the use cases and how they link to other ports and to Government strategic priorities.  The Freeports Playbook takes a holistic view to ensure the success of the Freeports initiative in the UK, as well as their potential to stimulate innovation, investment and regional growth.  The successful Freeports include Felixstowe and Harwich (Freeport East), the Humber region, Liverpool City Region, Plymouth, Solent, Thames, Teesside and East Midlands Airport.

Jack Harrison, Head of Maritime Technology at the Department for Transport, hailed the challenge and technology focus of Connected Places Catapult. “Development and use of new technologies bring benefits in efficiency, sustainability, safety and competitiveness,” he said.  “There are areas that come out really strongly – developments around digitalisation and automation and autonomy, both in a port context and also at sea and in a wider logistics chain.  Also, the link between new technology and new skilled employment is something DfT is passionate about,” he added, “Making sure work is linked to employment in the sector.”  He also praised the focus on the environmental aspects of the work being carried out in ports, pointing to the Government’s Maritime 2050 plan, with its Net Zero ambitions for the UK maritime sector.

The Freeport Playbook details objectives of the initiative, benefits and global positioning opportunities, operational models, income and regulatory considerations and example case studies.  Several of the bids for freeport status were supported by Connected Places Catapult, assisting bidders with impartial expertise in systems and technology, impact focus and cross-sector experience.

“Ports are essential multi-modal transport hubs, vital to the effectiveness and resiliency of our national logistics networks and supply chains, and to the success of the industries on which they rely,” commented Henry Tse, Director of New Mobility Technologies, Connected Places Catapult.  “As an island nation, ports are critical for the UK to remain competitive in global trade, employing well over 100,000 people and handling 500 million tonnes of freight every year, which is 95% of import/exports by volume and over 75% by value.”

“Freeport zones have a genuine potential to be serious engines of regional growth through attracting foreign direct investment and stimulating innovation and collaboration,” explained Thomas White, Director of Modelling and Appraisal (Interim), Connected Places Catapult. “The government specification for freeports includes requirements to support the transition to Net Zero and innovation more broadly, being required to work as  innovation hubs for regional growth.”

This focus on technological innovation was echoed by the Connected Places Catapult’s Infrastructure and Freeport Advisor Ibrahim Mohamed, who told the delegates, “The innovation hubs associated with freeports have the potential to perform a vital role in bridging the gap between industry and academia, generating new ideas for innovation, translating emerging concepts into increased flows of R&D investment and accelerating the adoption of new technologies by leveraging these activities.”

Meanwhile, the innovative use cases highlighted in the event provided practical and actionable solutions to challenges faced by ports in the UK and around the world, building on existing Connected Places Catapult decarbonisation and digitalisation initiatives.

With Net Zero requirements being a key part of the Government’s Freeport plan, delegates heard how the Catapult and Royal HaskoningDHV have supported the Port of London in defining a self-learning model to accurately predict changes in water levels along the Thames as climate change affects its 95 miles of tidal flow.  The proposed model takes flood risk planning, real time data, and other inputs from the Port of London Authority, identifying patterns and trends on how the river level responds to different factors.  The digital twin of the tidal Thames defined in this use case would be constantly learning, through absorbing real-world data and improving its accuracy, leading to more confident planning and increased resilience.

Environmental considerations from emissions of freight entering and leaving a port were key to the Portsmouth use case where a virtual pre-gate system was defined for ferry-related traffic.  The technology would monitor and manage freight traffic before it arrives, particularly with consideration of the new rules for pre-clearance before coming to the port, thereby minimising delays and congestion around the port. Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras would be used to capture lorry identities as they approach the port and check pre-clearance status, diverting non-compliant traffic to a holding area.  This would improve efficiency and significantly reduce congestion and associated emissions around the port.

Similarly, a use case was explained at the Port of Tyne where the concept of Shore Power has been developed to remove the need for vessels to run their on-board generators and engines while berthed, significantly reducing emissions at port.  Vessels used for maintaining a nearby offshore wind farm in the North Sea would be connected to a sustainable power supply while in port.  The use case considered the standardisation of connections and managing peak demand, as well as helping to minimise the time a vessel is at berth, cutting emissions from ships on shore and at sea.

On the West Wales coast in Milford Haven, the 25-mile approach to the port is marked by tall beacons and floating buoys which are buffeted by large waves.  These are very difficult and hazardous to inspect, and damage to the beacons or broken chains on the buoys can be dangerous to shipping, so a use case has shown how sensors attached to these can offer early warnings of defects by feeding real-time data to a dashboard with machine learning capabilities to optimise the intervention programmes.

Meanwhile a use case in Shoreham explored how drones, sensors and video feeds can be used to monitor the condition of warehouses, roads, gates and other buildings around the port, thereby reducing the need for expensive or hazardous human checks.  This use of technology not only saves money, but standardises inspections, automatically identifying condition, deterioration in assets, cracks, debris and corrosion, with more frequent analysis. A proposed machine learning tool would not only use data from the port, but also compare data from assets in similar environments, and could have major safety benefits for all UK ports when implemented more widely.

The event not only looked at maritime-related use cases but learned from beyond the sector by comparing how the experience of Cranfield University’s work at airports can be related to ports. This included optimising maintenance regimes, enhancing operational awareness, enabling more efficient logistics operations and reduced environmental impacts.  This delivers real benefits around predictability and risk management, efficiency and cost reduction.  Delegates also heard how commercial and military needs are balanced in a presentation from BAE Systems – Marine about the mixed waterways and ports around Portsmouth dockyard.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for ports and the maritime sector,” concluded Thomas White.  “The sector plays a vital role in how the UK works.  It is clear as crystal to me that there is a genuine drive and commitment not only to transform the sector itself, but to take a much more integrated, connected and collaborative approach to try new things, take more considered risks, explore the possible and, where we can, learn from each other and work together to share or reduce those risks through working with other sectors.”

The Freeport Playbook March 2021 is available here.

A link to the whole of the event is available here.