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Private cellular networks offer an ocean of opportunity for the maritime industry

March 30, 2021
Imagine a digitally connected harbor that connects millions of shipments.

By Jan Diekmann, technical account manager, BTEB dedicated networks business development & partnerships at Ericsson

Imagine this: a digitally connected harbor that can seamlessly connect millions of shipments and track goods more efficiently and securely. Or a fully connected supply chain with a shipping container that can communicate autonomously with surrounding units to find the most efficient route to its destination.

This is the future of the maritime industry with technologies like 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Ports are responsible for transporting 90% of the world’s goods, making them a vital component for the global economy. And, like many other industries today, the maritime industry is going through a digital transformation. But despite being essential, ports are lagging with digitalization efforts, connectivity is slow and expensive, and only a small percentage of vessels have any kind of internet access while at sea.

It has become clear that port operators can no longer bridge the connectivity gap with unreliable legacy technologies like WiFi, Bluetooth or costly and inflexible physical cables.

With increases in global development and international populations putting greater demands on trade, technologies like 5G and IoT have become essential ingredients to a more efficient and sustainable supply chain. Specifically, private cellular networks are playing a critical role in overcoming many of the challenges ports are facing today, including changing demands in consumer and industrial trade, worker safety, rising costs, yard congestion and environmental concerns.

There are more than 2,000 ports in the world; in order for them to transition into a smarter future, they will need to leverage the high-speed connectivity, low latency and strong performance promised by cellular networks. In fact, a 5G-ready private cellular network can provide everything needed to successfully deploy the following five use cases outlined in Ericsson’s recent Connected Ports report. These use cases present an opportunity to optimize operations through automation and address specific pain points…let’s call it Ports 4.0.

Remote-controlled ship-to-shore (STS) cranes

STS cranes are responsible for loading and unloading containers between the ship and dock. They are located dockside and operators need to move through the entire port in order to access them and reach the crane’s driver cabin, making them a highly stressful task. These cranes require high levels of precision and maneuverability when it comes to the speed of unloading items, which can be both dangerous and time consuming. A cellular network can simplify the process by making the entire dockside operation digital, whereby a crane operator can control the cranes remotely from a control room in real-time rather than manually in a shipyard. Not only does this improve visibility, but it also optimizes operations and decreases energy usage.

Automated rubber-tired gantry cranes

Rubber-tired gantry cranes (RTG) are a popular choice of equipment for transferring and stacking containers at terminals. They are accessed by port operators onsite in a container yard and require skilled professionals, which have been harder to attract in recent years.

Leveraging smart 3D-sensors and positioning devices, automated RTGs can automatically stack containers and other essentials. When an irregularity occurs, an operator can easily take control from a remote-control room, similar to remote-controlled STS cranes. The solution puts very high requirements on reliability, bandwidth latency and high security, which makes a private 5G network suitable for this use case.

Automated guided vehicles

Ports utilize tractors and other vehicles in their day-to-day operations. For years, poor communication between drivers has resulted in congestion and collisions, hurting productivity levels. According to ResearchGate, 36% of accidents in ports were caused by pilot error and 42% of accidents were classified as “traffic” accidents.

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that are connected to a cellular network can receive work orders and positioning information—such as collision warnings—from a central intelligence system. This improves the accuracy and speed of operations and addresses safety regulations. Additionally, by introducing smart 3D sensors into the mix, AGVs can navigate throughout a port and act as driverless forklifts and other material-handling vehicles. Notably, newer generations of smart AGVs operate with electricity rather than today’s more commonly used diesel power.


The maritime sector is not immune to disasters. Like many industries, ports are prone to fires, equipment damage and other unpredictable incidents that result in downtime. In many cases, equipment is evaluated through vibration or temperature monitoring, a task typically performed manually.

Smart condition-monitoring can detect faults in equipment before they occur, reducing unplanned downtime and over-maintenance, all while maximizing asset productivity. Cellular-connected sensors and condition-monitoring software are easier to deploy and are used to analyze abnormalities, while also determining when an asset is in need of maintenance. The sensors combined with a cloud-based solution enable real-time monitoring and help protect a port’s machinery, such as cranes, AGVs and stacks of containers.

Drones for surveillance and deliveries

Security has become a major concern for ports around the world. Thefts are common and often result in disrupted supply chains. Deploying camera-equipped drones with 3D sensors has created an effective surveillance system for port operators by providing them with better vantage points to identify disturbances and the ability to react and move faster. Video analytics can be used to detect abnormalities, like an unauthorized person moving throughout the port or an incorrect truck picking up a container. Overall, drone surveillance can decrease port theft by 75%.

Drones can also be used to safely deliver documents to and from ships, replacing the traditional means of tugboats or launch boats, thereby reducing CO2 emissions and affiliated costs. 

Getting on board with Ports 4.0

Forging a more agile and better-connected port system means investing in cellular connectivity. To reach the next level, operators need to deploy just one 5G network to get the value benefits from all five use cases. If all five are deployed together, complete payback can be achieved in less than two years and, by year five, a standard baseline port can expect a return on investment (ROI) of around 178%.

Once the network is in place, ports have the potential to expand with additional use cases and integrate with other industries, such as a fully connected supply chain.

Today, Rotterdam World Gateway is a great example of a port with a private cellular network. Running for almost two years, it has proven the value cellular technology can bring in transforming ports into more productive and sustainable transportation hubs.