When you think of the technology at docks and ports, the first things that may spring to mind are the giant cranes that pick containers off the ships and place them somewhere on the dock.
These “gantry cranes” as they’re called stand taller than the ships at several tens of metres high and have lifting capacities of several tens of tons. But they’re all manually operated – just like the cranes you might see on construction sites.
In fact, there’s very little automation let alone machine autonomy present at the vast majority of docks and ports and ports around the world, which perhaps is not surprising given the history of docks as a massive employer of manpower. The work was always done by humans and was essentially simple – lift and move boxes.
But those boxes got bigger and bigger over the years, and eventually led to the invention of standardised sizes, such as the 20-foot and 40-foot metal containers so beloved of logistics companies around the world.
The metal hooks dock workers used in the past – like the one used by Marlon Brando and his like in the film On The Waterfront – to help lift and move things has also been replaced, largely by the gantry crane and other vehicles. But robotics and automation has only in recent years been getting a look-in.
DP World is one of the world’s largest port operators, with some 70 marine terminals across six continents, including one port considered to be in the top 10 busiest in the world – Jebel Ali, in Dubai.
The company says it is increasing the amount of automation and remote operation at its ports. The move will simplify security procedures for crane operators, say some companies at the port.
It’s still not quite the computer- or artificial intelligence-driven robotics-related automation that is set to take over other industries. But it’s not too far off.
Some ports already use many robotics and automation systems. Perhaps the most advanced is Rotterdam port, in the Netherlands, which uses a range of technologies from ABB, TeuStack, and Fata/Finmeccania (see video, above).
Rotterdam is considered something of a pioneer in this regard, and it’s probably its decision to deploy robotics and automation technology that has helped it stay in or near the top 10 ports in the world.
But as if in an attempt to catch up, or even leapfrog, the competition, DP World has robotics and automation technology as central to its plans going forward. The company is even wondering if drones will lead the way.
Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, chairman and newly appointed CEO of DP World, says: “Today people talk drone cargo transport; maybe we won’t need sea ports. Cargo will go to end-user without ports, some say.”
It seems inevitable that ports will introduce increasing levels of robotics and automation technology, the drone takeover of the world notwithstanding. The amount of goods being shipped around the world is increasing all the time, and by using robotics and automation technology, ports can increase their productivity by around 70 per cent, according to TeuStack.
Moreover, an increasing number of companies are building robotics and automation solutions aimed at the ports industry.
Logistics robots developer BA Systemes has been working with Gaussin, a developer of mechanical wheeled handling systems, under a program called “Véhicule Automatisé Supervisé pour Conteneurs” – or Automatic and Supervised Vehicle for Containers – or Vasco for short.
Vasco is a collaborative project of innovation in port robotics which aims at developing the first 100 per cent automated system with guidance without any infrastructure for the transfer of containers in port terminals.
The program has yielded a new product, the Automated Intelligent Vehicle (AIV), which BA Systemes and Gaussin say is a “fully automated port vehicle”, due to be tested next year.
As well as BA Systemes and Gaussin, the Vasco consortium includes a number of prestigious French university-based robotics departments, back by the government with around $10 million.
“The solution offered by Vasco should radically improve the productivity of container terminals and reduce the operating costs,” said Gaussin and BA Systemes in a press release.