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5G-Technology in modern container ports – an auspicious future for the industry?

Two dockworkers look across the water at the cranes and contemplate the plan of the port terminal in their hands.

Just recently, 5G communications technology had a huge impact on the political scenery within the European Union and globally. In Germany a handful of local and global providers struggle for an almost historic contract volume that will change markets for the next decades.

Having this in mind, it might be a good strategy to think about the new upcoming opportunities of the high-end communications and control-systems that could be enabled by a ubiquitous 5G-Network when deployed in a port and on a container terminal. Not only is this necessary to meet some future IOT-standards that will come up in the container-industry but also to exactly define what will be the real challenges for the terminals and ports yet running a rather ordinary container terminal operation.

Hard to know yet. We could get closer to an answer if we try to split it into multiple aspects:

Once deployed and established, 5G communication nodes on container terminals can provide a very fast – basically real-time – dataflow which might have been yet unmatched: the controlling TOS could gain data about the today’s terminal operations much faster and more efficient than possible before. And maybe these will be provided by more digital sources in even closer embeddings. Imagine, when simulation systems could be enabled to forecast future bottlenecks in operation on a continuous, all-time-running, real-time base. This being enabled by very fast and extremely dense 5G data networks and a high-performance in-memory data storage to feed the necessary algorithms for comparison and hereby complementing the leading TOS. This could create new strategies for the TOS on very short notice either in STS-, yard or gate-operations to name just a few points of impact.


Another aspect is to deploy a digital data network over a container terminal without being forced to struggle with the local authorities; this could be another advantage of 5G-technology. This rather striking point comes clear if one imagines the efforts to spend on clearances for the civil works necessary for laying cables or gain licences for tunnelling or for ordinary terrestrial radio relays. Not only in the so-called developing countries but also in the established industrial nations, were greenfield and brownfield projects sometimes come to a sudden halt not because of budgetary restraints but because of never ending struggling with some authorities. All this could be much reduced as 5G promises to be a less demanding technology regarding old-fashioned construction works. Of course, this remains to be seen…this is only true, if we talk about a SAT-based 5G. Otherwise, you may need licenses from local authorities for your local 5G network, too.

There are plans to use low-orbiting-satellites for a 5G-Network, deployed by one or maybe two global players in the space-business. Or to deploy “Blimps” (airships without internal structure) and other atmospheric vehicles cruising close to the stratosphere and forming a relay-station and data-nodes for a high-speed digital communication network. Still science fiction? Not at all: initial trials in a yet military environment have been successful. But even if so: what might be the derivation for an “ordinary” container terminal?

The most important question is if direct and sole 5G networks can be the solution when it comes to automation on terminals. Can a fully (or semi-) automated terminal solely rely on a 5G network, even if it is a dedicated and virtually “fenced in”-area for one specific terminal only? Can the whole transport gear from all AGVs to ASCs be controlled in real-time guidance by a 5G-network? Technically, this can surely be done but the challenges and risks have to be assessed properly:

what’s about the reliability of the frequencies necessary for high-speed transmissions? When operating real-life assets in such a vulnerable high-tech environment: what about safety issues and the protection of the staff? Do we need more redundancies in case of a breakdown compared to more “conservative” guidance systems? E.g. is 5G safer or better than the usually used local WiFi connection?

What’s about weather influences? Adverse weather conditions like thunderstorms, lightning strikes and a high degree of humidity can kill the whole communications-network. Sure, this is a constant risk that every highly automated production system has to cope with. But 5G controlled logistics vehicles close to the open seaside connected by vulnerable high-speed frequencies, relayed by satellites or antenna-poles and operating in a yet unmatched density of dataflow is a challenge on its own. Is 5G more vulnerable than the ordinary and yet proven WiFi?

But the overall question is yet to be asked: is the industry ready enough for a data driven economy? Are the parties willing to share data among each other for the greater good? One is for sure: the real benefit is in the data availability and the possibility to transfer data in real-time.

By Oliver Jelsch, Head of Sales akquinet port consulting

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