How 5G is making waves from ship to shore

Autonomous, crewless vessels may seem a distant reality, but technology could bring these to life soon.

Singapore’s ports would need to be equipped to receive such ships and have them dock safely beside manned vessels. Incorporating drones and Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the ports will go a long way in ensuring safety and efficiency. With increased automation, harbour work could also soon shed its image as a labour-intensive profession.

These emerging port innovations can be traced to a main factor: 5G, the fifth generation of global mobile communications designed to connect everyone and everything via higher-frequency radio waves.

The technology allows for unprecedented connectivity with its large bandwidth, reliability, and drastically reduced lag. This creates opportunities to use complementary technology such as AI, the Internet of Things, big data and autonomous driving. 5G is the key that promises to unlock a full suite of solutions.

The next port of call: Automation

At Singapore’s Pasir Panjang Terminal, vehicles hum throughout the day – but not all are manned. Like tireless worker ants, driverless automated guided vehicles (AGVs) ply their routes diligently, loading and unloading tonnes of cargo.

Since 2019, 5G connectivity has been tested at the port as part of a collaboration between the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA), PSA Singapore, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and telcos M1 and Singtel. The trial is among seven 5G use cases that have received funding as part of a S$40 million drive.  

With 5G, there is considerably less lag time between the commands given and the vehicles’ responses, due to the network’s lower latency. The increased bandwidth of 5G also means operations can be scaled without compromising on efficiency. While the AGVs number about 30 now at Pasir Panjang, the aim is to have more than 2,000 such vehicles at the upcoming Tuas megaport. This would be possible only with 5G, as 4G allows only 300 to 400 AGVs to be used simultaneously.

Such technology is crucial to a maritime hub like Singapore. Maritime operations are one of six strategic clusters where 5G applications are expected to generate the most value for the country in global export.

Ports elsewhere are going full sail to tap on the technology as well. The European Union’s 5G Blueprint is a three-year project studying how teleoperation – the remote control of machinery – can make transport and logistics more efficient. Port operations are a big part of the project, and 5G is expected to be a gamechanger in the region’s post-COVID-19 recovery. This is against a larger backdrop of a targeted €150 billion digital budget under the EU that will finance 5G network infrastructures.

The keyword is optimisation: how to cut operation costs and travel time while organising the seamless loading and unloading of ships through the instant exchange of real-time data between ports and vessels.

The Port of Antwerp is already testing 5G-integrated operations onsite, with an eye on using the technology in daily operations. The use of sensors, smart cameras, remote-controlled ships, autonomous vehicles, and drones at the Belgian hub are used to enhance operations and support the logistics chain.

Safety comes first

Beyond optimising operations, 5G will allow the maritime industry to strengthen safety.  
Take the Port of Barcelona, which is using 5G to ascertain precise and real-time information on ship movements and geolocation to optimise docking space. More than that, this ensures the highest level of safety for ships.

“Having a network of cameras connected by 5G technology would represent an important advance in terms of safety for maritime traffic in the Port of Barcelona,” said the port’s President, Merce Conesa.

“But not only would it help us improve safety and security in the port area, which are of the utmost importance, but it would also help to optimise our dockside management. And it would facilitate the daily work of all port services – pilots, tug-operators and moorers.”

In Singapore, MPA, IMDA, and M1 partnered with Airbus in 2019 to conduct coastal 5G standalone network trials at the Singapore Maritime Drone Estate. The goal is to build an open and inclusive 5G ecosystem for use in port operations, incident management and response.

In an era of growing cyber threats, 5G should also be implemented progressively to ensure maximum safety and efficacy. And if used well, the maritime sector will surely experience a new era of remarkable growth.

Publication Date: 29/3/2021

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