Despite only 3% of global container ports being automated, the creation of semi or fully automated container ports has transitioned from linear growth between 1990-2010 to the exponential growth that has been seen in the last decade . Driving pressures for this transition is the increasing pressure for ports to adapt to TEU growth, accompanied by the appearance of megaships which generate higher demand peaks than ever seen. Semi or fully automated ports offer a solution to increase efficiency and optimise logistics chains .
Despite this demand, there is an aversion in the industry for the automation of Brownfield terminal sites. More than half of participants of a McKinsey survey expected that 50 % of top 50 existing ports to initiate retrofitting plans including automation elements in the next 5 years. This is compared to over 80 % of participants expecting at least 50 % of all greenfield sites to be semi- or fully automated . This separation in expectations highlights the accepted industry opinion that retrofitting automation to brownfield sites or existing container port equipment faces many more issues than equivalent adoption in greenfield sites. Ultimately this viewpoint spread across the industry can result in port terminal automation not fulfilling its true potential if brownfield sites are disproportionately neglected during this automation movement. Key requirements to complete automation of brownfield sites are the utilisation of existing equipment, resources and space of ports, and the maximum possible restriction of disruption to port operations.
The root causes behind this aversion to brownfield automation can be separated into two key reasonings: issues caused by port infrastructure, and non-infrastructure related issues. The automation of mobile port vehicles, including autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs), terminal tractors and autonomous container handling equipment (ACHE) requires the addition of sensor technologies. Many among these, especially the less technologically advanced, rely strongly on rigid infrastructure. For example, radio frequency identification (RFID) transponders which must be placed below the ground deep enough to be protected from heavy machinery above.
It isn’t necessarily the cost of the placement of the transponders (lines or grids) themselves that make this an unattractive solution, but rather that these require the cessation of surrounding operations during network constructed. Other technologies which are similarly inconvenient include magnetic floor strip dependent solutions and above ground radio beacon-based solutions. With many costs, such as demurrage charges, associated with the delay of shipping operations, the cost associated with just an hour of delayed operations is dramatic.
Further, following the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example shipping rates per 40-foot box from China to the United States have increase by more than 500% from a year ago (Freightos, July 2021) ; consequently driving up any of the aforementioned charges and making operational efficiency more valuable than ever. In the increasing times of Internet of things (IoT) and Industry 4.0, the dependency on networks and internet infrastructure for remote operation and localisation is vital. The set-up of which requires any number of civilian engineers in the high-risk working conditions of ports, and once again requires port operations to cease whilst this is installed. Asides from financial implications, other potential impacts include reputational damage and decreased competitive performance resulting from reduced operational efficiency.
Other infrastructure related obstacles to automation include situations where existing port structures and layout obstruct effective rollout of required infrastructure. Examples of this is included with other infrastructure dependent localisation technologies such as radio-based beacon responders when the space to place these at optimal positions around the site isn’t convenient and may obstruct everyday operations. Not only this but working around said issues restricts future flexibility and modernisation following future technological advancements. Such can also be said for the use of infrastructure dependent solutions themselves, where the setup such as grids or lines is just as rigid to future advancements and site growth.
In addition, infrastructure dependent localisation solutions also present the issue whereby having more components required to operate a system. This creates more opportunity for damage, maintenance, or product failures. For example, ground fixed magnetic strips and responders experience heavy machinery traffic every day, subjecting them to great wear and tear. In summary, Automation technologies which therefore pose significant difficulties when trying to implement retroactively to brownfield sites include transponder technology, radar navigation based on passive radar beacons, magnetic stripping or beacons and local ground-based replicas of GNSS used where GNSS fails.
Aside from infrastructure related difficulties of automating brownfield container ports there are many non-infrastructure related issues. Of likely highest financial concern is the remaining lifespan of port machinery. Machinery such as terminal tractors and cranes can last beyond 15 years, as the adoption of automation is occurring at an exponential rate, many machines which port operators could now automate are still within their lifespan. Therefore, automation or localisation technologies which can be added in a modular approach to existing vehicles in mid service life rather than those just available from the first point of manufacturing of the vehicle are much more attractive from a financial perspective.
From an operations perspective the implementation of automation represents a jump in skill set for most on site employees. Despite the most public opposition to the deployment of automation is the fear of lost jobs, this is misunderstood, and automation adoption represents a shift in employment profile, requiring higher skilled employees. A survey by McKinsey reported that it on average takes up to 5 years to train experienced engineers [?]. In addition to concerns of job loss and automating vehicles mid service life – it must be remembered that certain port processes such as lashing, and twist lock handling are obstacles to full automation. Certain non-infrastructure concepts and processes are particularly hard to automate in mid-service life vehicles and will likely remain this way especially without replacement of certain equipment where the automation of these processes has been enabled. Hence, it can be reasoned that at brownfields sites at least a proportion of original terminal workers must remain.
Avoiding loss in capacity during implementation can to some extent be achieved by carrying out step by step process, adapting automation plans to fit the existing infrastructure such as automation equipment following existing travel paths, or expanding areas of the port to create new automated areas. However, these solutions do not directly address with the above issues at hand.
The most obvious of solutions that directly address these issues is the use of infrastructure free technologies. Terran360, a world-leading industrial standard radar by Navtech Radar is a single sensor localisation solution is one example of such technology [Terran360 for autonomous vehicle localisation – Navtech Radar]. This technology creates a map of its driven route by scanning the surrounding environment, identifying landmarks, and creating a map of its driven route. The radar scans at 4 Hz, capturing radar information at 400 azimuths (every 0.9 degrees) with 2587 range bins. This gives an incredibly data-rich output which is then used to generate a map which can later be distributed to a fleet of vehicles via a cloud-based platform. The fleet can then identify their location within the map at any point.
This solution is infrastructure free, flexible to future changes and optimisation of operations, and robust to weather, daylight, and structural changes to the port landscape. In addition to eliminating construction time within the yard, infrastructure free technologies have greater potential to be implemented to one vehicle at a time, here fleet redundancy means operations do not have cease. As a result, disruption to operations are significantly decreased if not eliminated. A stepwise approach can also be applied to autonomous port vehicles, allowing them to coexist with existing fleets at the transition occurs. Other examples of infrastructure free solutions include cameras and lidar which provide similar benefits as radar but with less robustness when it comes to adverse weather conditions.
Other solutions include adopting modular technologies, i.e. those which are not inbuilt to intermodal transport vehicles or mobile cranes, as this enables retrofitting to both mid-service life vehicles of brownfield sites without purchase of new fleets. As an alternative, introduction, and gradual replacement of end-of-life vehicles with automated ones should also be considered. However, this requires implementation of spatial separation of the two operation modes, which may further increase pressure on the layout of the port, potentially requiring operational downtime to implement this.
The automated container terminal market is expected to increase at a CAGR of 3.7% during 2017-2023  and it is important that the automation of brownfield sites is considered a priority just as much as introducing automated greenfield sites. As technological advances introduce more automation solutions that are infrastructure free, flexible, modular, fast to set up, and require lower skill set for operation this presents the opportunity for this shift in priority to occur. As the existing number of ports is around 1,400  this provides great opportunity for the adoption of automation to accelerate and meet the demands of the market beyond the amount presented by the rate of construction of greenfield sites. In addition, this focus shift would enable existing ports to better compete with new greenfield automated sites. In summary, equal attention for the introduction of automation will enable the full realisation of the benefits of automation, including but not limited to generating more accessible data and insights resulting in increased operational efficiency and revenue, and improving worker safety.
(By Madelen Shepherd, Growth Marketing Manager, Navtech Radar. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sea News Feature, September 14