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How new technology is transforming port management

By Matt Hodson, Marine Hub Operations Director, Cornwall Development Company

The growing demand for increased capacity in the shipping industry means that modern ports need to be constantly innovating and improving their operations in order to keep pace.

Over recent years, leading ports have adopted a range of new technologies to help them become more efficient and offer an improved service to their customers. At Marine-i, we help businesses in Cornwall accelerate the growth of their business through innovation. Technology is transforming all sectors and all fields of activity. Over the last year, we have supported businesses develop new technologies in areas as diverse as autonomous vehicles, offshore wind, sail technology, AI and robotics, hydrographic surveys and smart propulsion. You can find out more about our case studies here.

To help businesses identify new opportunities relevant to them, we also review worldwide trends in the fast-moving maritime industry. Here are some examples of how the technology is being used to revolutionise port operations.

Equipment monitoring

Smart systems can help to ensure that cargo handling equipment is operating at its maximum efficiency while also checking that each part of the system is properly maintained. At the Port of Valencia, sensors have been installed on over 200 pieces of equipment, including cranes, trucks and forklifts. These enable staff to monitor aspects such as location and fuel consumption, so that they can manage their workload more effectively and also reduce idling time.


Infrastructure management

Sensors embedded in the infrastructure can provide continuous data on the condition of key parts of the infrastructure, such as berths, roads, rail tracks and bridges. These systems enable timely, preventative maintenance to be carried out which helps to avoid unscheduled disruption to port operations. It also reduces the need for physical inspections to be carried out by staff, who can be redeployed to more valuable work.

An example of a business in this field that has benefitted from Marine-i’s support is Ultrabeam Hydrographic, who specialise in providing high resolution hydrographic surveys for clients. These surveys are invaluable in the management of marine-based assets such as ports and harbours. With Marine-i’s help, Ultrabeam are developing a revolutionary new Unmanned Surface Vessel to carry out surveys that would not be possible with conventional craft. You can read Ultrabeam’s exciting story here.

Energy saving

Smart technologies can help reduce energy consumption at ports. For example, the Port of Hamburg has a system of smart street lighting for the approach roads to the port, lights which are activated by the movement of traffic. This can generate major savings on electricity. As well as reducing energy consumption, modern technology can be used to monitor the environmental impact of port operations, reduce emissions and help ensure compliance with environmental legislation.

Our Discovery Room on Hybrid Propulsion and Smart Battery Technology, held at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth last year, explored how smart energies can reduce energy consumption at ports and reduce noise, helping ensure compliance with environmental legislation.


Autonomous Systems

Caofeidian Port in China is aiming to become the world’s first completely autonomous port operation. It is developing the capability to load and unload container ships using robots, while cargo movements would be supported by a fleet of 20 self-driving trucks. At the current time, the port has a capacity of 300,000 TEU containers and is being seen as a proving ground for this technology before it is rolled out to other larger ports in China.



One of the biggest causes of delays and costs is the current system of handling cargo documentation and customs payments, many of which are paper-based and highly complex. A number of port operators across Europe are trialling the use of blockchain technology to revolutionise these processes. Not only would this be much faster and more accurate, it would also be more secure and less vulnerable to tampering.  


Internet of Things (IoT)

A leader in this field has been the Port of Rotterdam which has been developing a highly sophisticated port management system based on IoT. In February 2019, Rotterdam went live with the first application of this new system which can now provide accurate and up to date data on the weather and water conditions. There are 44 sensors around the port which are constantly tracking information such as tidal stream, tide height, wind speed, wind direction and salinity. The system incorporates many forecasting and predictive models. This will allow the teams at the port to optimise times for berthing, unloading/loading and departure, leading to more efficient and cost-effective movement of shipping. It is likely that more and more major ports will follow the Rotterdam model, not just for the management of shipping and cargo, but also for the management of the roads and railways that feed into the port infrastructure.


As you can see from this overview, digital technology has a crucial role to play in building the ‘smart ports’ of the future. It can help operators to get maximum value from their assets, increase their operating capacity, reduce their overall costs, and allow them to embrace the latest developments in shipping, such as autonomous operations.

For these reasons, it is an area that offers great new opportunities for innovative marine businesses operating in sensor technology, software systems and marine engineering. These are all innovations that Marine-i stands ready to support, with expert consultancy, outstanding research and testing facilities, and grant support through the Marine Challenge Fund. You can see more on our comprehensive programme here.