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Want to power port digitalization and cutting-edge use cases? 5G private networks are the answer

Tuesday, 07 December 2021 | 01:00

Ports are important centers of global and domestic trade. There are approximately 360 commercial ports in the U.S. alone, each with a constant flow of ships and goods. Over USD 1.7 trillion worth of goods moved through domestic ports in 2019, according to the Department of Transportation.

In a previous blog, we discussed the challenges posed by the global supply chain crisis and how private networks could be a solution.

As U.S. ports wrestle with these issues and move closer to 24-hour operating models, a robust digital infrastructure can help a port manager stay abreast of evolving challenges while modernizing for the future.

As I’ve seen firsthand in my time working with ports, private networks are playing a key role in port digitalization. The key features of private networks – especially when powered by 5G, the latest generation of cellular connectivity – are availability, reliability and security.

Those features enable exciting use cases, including:

Activating the Internet of Things (IoT) and automation
The Internet of Things (IoT) is being supercharged by 5G. The throughput of the latest networks is able to handle the massive flow of data required to make dozens, or even hundreds, of connected devices in a facility work together seamlessly.

In ports, the connections the IoT is creating between all post assets – vessels, containers, cranes, etc. – combine to create truly smart ports, paving the way for more automation. For example, rubber tiered gantry cranes, or RTGs, that are used to stack containers are a common sight at most ports. However, crane operator is among the most dangerous job in a port, and shift changes and other downtimes can create inefficiencies. Yet, more than 90% of RTGs are still human-operated.

Automation, powered by private networks at data from IoT devices, increases safety by allowing the cranes to run autonomously being controlled and coordinated by a central entity and also increases efficiency by automating the pick-up and placing of containers. According to Ericsson’s Connected Ports Report, a joint project by Ericsson and Arthur D. Little, ports can achieve a 20% reduction of maintenance through automated and consistent movement patterns like these.

According to a report by Deloitte, information flowing from IoT devices will also help ports take advantage of their place at the center of the supply chain, fostering collaboration and cooperation with all land and sea transport nodes, linking ground transport, shipping vessels, and logistic companies together.

Digital twinning brings insights
A digital twin is a virtual representation of an object or process, updated with real-time data and using AI/machine learning to help make decisions, such as when a part needs to be replaced, or a process tweaked for efficiency.

In ports, this technology can create a real-time information flow (often through IoT devices mentioned above) that gives port operators a comprehensive view of everything happening in what can be an extremely complex ecosystem. Since a broken piece of equipment or an inefficient process can result in millions of dollars in lost revenue, real-time insight and predictive maintenance are critical.

Ericsson worked with the Livorno port terminal in Italy to build a 5G private network to capture an extremely deep data set from an interconnected network of smart sensors, 3D LIDARs and Wide Dynamic Range (WDR) cameras. All that information feeds into the 5G network to create a detailed virtual replica of the port activity in real-time. And since the port holds 15,000 employees providing services to almost 9,000 ships every year, it’s a lot of activity. That modeling can then be used to create a virtual “twin” of every piece of equipment, bulk, container, vessel and worker at the port. It gives port operators insight into what’s in boxes, their dimensions and where cranes and forklifts are at risk of breaking down due to lack of maintenance, and more.

Mixed reality brings new vision
Another example of how these 5G-powered capabilities in a connected port build on each other is mixed reality: virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications. These take advantage of all the data collected through IoT devices and virtualized in the digital twin, allowing workers to check the maintenance status of equipment, find a particular piece of freight, and drill down into logistics without putting themselves in harm’s way.

In the Port of Livorno, a VR application leveraging Oculus headsets allows operators to virtually “visit” containers and bulk boxes and see all information related to that box such as content, dimensions, weight, etc. These stats appear in a virtual clipboard, allowing workers to keep close track of inventory while remaining in the back office.

Also at the port, an AR application for forklift drivers both helps bring greater efficiency to onboarding/offloading of materials and underscores the powerful network needed to bring these use cases to life. WDR cameras track all objects in a storage area, uploading a massive amount of data to a localized cloud. There, software processes images, recognizes objects, determines instructions for the drivers and delivers real-time direction laid on top of reality through an AR headset specifically designed for a hard hat environment. Only the low latency and localized processing power of a 5G private network can bring such a complex real-time use case to life.

A platform for the future
These are exciting use cases that 5G-powered private networks are making possible and enabling port digitalization today. However, the need for a robust communications infrastructure isn’t just about the present, but about laying a strong foundation for what’s coming in maritime shipping.

Global freight demand will triple by 2050, according to the International Transport Forum (ITF), an intergovernmental think tank. That means more ships, more containers and other freight – and above all, more data. It won’t be enough for US ports, in particular, to simply catch up with networks that can handle the information flow. Digital twinning and the IoT are compelling use cases, but 5G (and 6G, down the road) will enable capabilities we can’t even imagine yet. The network infrastructure needs to be in place to bring them to life.
Source: Ericsson

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