Digital Technologies for Managing Port Terminals

Written by Ng Joon Hui, ADPSM

by Ng Joon Hui, ADPSM

With the paradigm shift of ports’ role from port terminal operators since 2000 to trade service providers in the near future, new challenges have arisen with liner operators demanding mega berths for their ultra-large container vessels and better terminal consolidation as service requirements become more diverse and complex. Container terminals are facing pressures to improve cargo handling and vessel turnaround times while maintaining a competitive edge in order to be profitable.

To meet these challenges, terminal operators have to maximize their resources and invest in new technologies to improve container handling and operational efficiency. In addition, they have to explore emerging technologies to be well-positioned for the future. This article examines the various emerging technologies that are applicable to the port terminals.

Autonomous Truck Platooning for Container Transportation

Truck Platooning is the linking of a number of trucks in convoy and this is made possible by using a combination of different technologies. Equipped with radar, camera and GPS technology, the trucks know their precise location and are able to maintain a set close distance from one another.

The trucks communicate by using a wireless vehicle to vehicle communication, which reduces their individual response time to almost zero, and allows them to drive very closely together safely. The advantages of truck platooning are:

• Platoons take up less space and don’t overtake
• Optimizes road activities and minimizes traffic jams
• Driving close together decreases air drag, reducing fuel consumptions and CO2 emissions
• Improves safety as braking is automatic and immediate; with response time only one-fifth of what a human need to react
• Increase efficiency by allowing human drivers to perform other tasks during most of the trucking journey

The implementation of truck platooning on actual roads will take years to realize as the technology needs to be perfect to handle real-traffic conditions. A new regulatory framework with harmonized rules and exemption procedures need to be developed to determine new traffic rules, communication protocols, vehicle inspection requirements for platoons of trucks et cetera. Support from various stakeholders such as policy makers, insurance companies, logistic operators and road infrastructure operators are essential to provide the investments and incentives to promote the use of truck platooning.

Terminal Drones for Smart Ports and Terminals

Individual drones have since been used to film site operations, monitor traffic flows, deliver small packages and perform surveillance operations in port terminals. The next phase is the co-ordination of multiple drones flying simultaneously and harmoniously in the airspace of the operation vicinity. These drones are equipped with collision avoidance systems, where obstacle detection sensors are used to scan the surroundings, while software algorithms and simultaneous localization and Mapping (SLAM) technology produce the images into 3D maps allowing drones to sense and avoid.

The world first simultaneous drone flight test to fly in an industrial environment is conducted at the DronePort in Sint-Truiden, Antwerp, Belgium, and was part of the Safe and Flexible Integration of Initial U-Space Services in a Real Environment (SAFIR). The SAFIR consortium consists of Amazon Prime Air, Aveillant, C-Astral, DronePort, Elia, Explicit, Helicus, Port of Antwerp, Proximus, SABCA, Skeyes, Tekever and Unifly. The demonstration consisted of a trial round at DronePort where the drones have to perform tasks such as package deliveries, inspection and reacting to emergency situations, which will provide practical insights to Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR)public-private partnership, which is the entity responsible for coordinating all EU air traffic management research and development activities.

As Chief Digital Information & Innovation Officer, Port of Antwerp, Erwin Verstraelen commented, “Drones are a key element in the development of a digital nervous system through the port of Antwerp. A live feed of the various port activities thanks to a network of autonomous drones is a useful tool for the entire port community. The combination of industry and logistics makes the port environment an excellent testing ground for the SAFIR project and other planned drone demonstrations.”

Drones as Cargo Movers

Besides focusing on drone activities within the port terminals, other organizations are focusing on drone technology to deliver cargo from shore-to-ship. One such company is Wilhelmsen Ships Service, a provider of smart shipping solutions, who is currently developing Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) with Airbus and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. Wilhelmsen Ships Service believes that UAS deliveries could achieved a faster response rate and turnaround time compared to the traditional launch boat deliveries, reducing the delivery costs by up to 90% as well as removing the safety risks inherent with delivery by launch boat, thus improving safety, productivity and efficiency.

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Currently, Wilhelmsen Ships Service is collaborating with Airbus’s Skyways on pilot trial to deliver spare parts, medical supplies, documents, water test kits and 3D printed consumables from Singapore port’s Marina South Pier to vessels at anchorage. Besides helping to validate the use case of parcel delivery using drones, the trial will also enable Wilhelmsen Ships Service to develop key technological solutions such as ship localization and precision landing, payload release systems, light and reliable private 4G/LTE communications, onshore parcel stations and automated package delivery systems.

However, delivering hundreds of pounds of cargo across distances miles away comes with its challenges, namely, the propulsion system technology that is required to power these drones. The current air mobility market lacks a reliable and effective propulsion system to propel drone delivery from a dream into reality.

Dependability and cost-effectiveness issues have since been plaguing current drone engines in the market for a long time, damping the ability of this industry to provide cargo delivery in large scale. For instance, electric motors with batteries which are used by most drones, lack the energy density needed to lift a sizeable cargo over a considerable distance, despite being reliable and quiet.

Another way to power the drones is to use intermittent combustion engines with AvGas or jet fuel. Such propulsion engines have the energy density to generate the thrust required, but have a historical documented track record of systemic propulsion system failures, leading to frequent drone crashes. Such records will make it impossible for FAA to approve drones equipped with these engines to operate in populated areas.

To overcome these issues, the drone industry will have to implement continuous-combustion gas turbine engines that are capable of producing shaft or electrical power equivalent to that of current manned aircraft, yet small enough to be fitted onto a drone. Such technological developments will pave the way ahead for drone delivery to become a commercially viable option.


It is undeniable that full autonomous land and aerial vehicles will be an integrated part of port operations in the foreseeable future. Most of these technologies are currently available, however, the speed for implementation depends on how fast appropriate regulatory frameworks or legislative guidelines can be established, be it meeting new safety traffic regulations for trucks or obtaining permits from relevant authorities for drones to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and flights over crowds.


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About the Author: Ng Joon Hui has substantive years of experience in the marine and port industry, specializing in the area of vessel and operation management. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from the National University of Singapore and is a member of the Singapore Institute of Purchasing and Materials Management (SIPMM). Joon Hui completed the Advanced Diploma in Procurement and Supply Management (ADPSM) in October 2019 at SIPMM Institute.