The introduction of intermodal shipping containers in the early 1950s and the subsequent development of container cranes marked the beginning of mechanisation and automation within the marine sector and heralded a revolution in global trade. Today, shipping accounts for around 90% of all trade movements and the pace of technological change is now faster than ever. Procedures and techniques used in information processing and the growth and performance of digital devices has exploded but the maritime industry’s conservative nature and the diverse and multiple operators involved have contributed to slower adoption of digital technologies in comparison with other sectors. In an environment characterised by cost pressures, increased regulation and stricter environmental standards, the need for ports to come to terms with digital technologies such as geospatial technology, artificial intelligence, automation and connected devices has never been stronger.


Despite increased trade and cargo volumes, remaining competitive is a challenge to ports. Increased numbers of mega-container ships require a correlating complexity of operations. This need for larger, higher-specification ports has amplified competition within the industry and many port authorities have invested in digital programmes that make better use of technology. With added pressures to ‘be cleaner’, digitalising connectivity and automation could also help reduce environmental footprints of the port industry which coupled with intelligent transport systems, have a huge potential to reduce carbon emissions.

Several ports have introduced digital programmes. The Port of Hamburg has conducted tests with 5G, the next-gen communication network in diverse applications. Sensors on ships were installed to transmit movement and environmental data in real time across large areas of the port. In another test, the port linked traffic lights to the mobile network in order to control traffic remotely through the port, as well as improving safety and efficiency processes. A third trial allowed the port to access all the data it collects outside of existing networks, transmitting 3D data to an augmented reality application. The success of the trials could lead to more secure links between ports and logistics companies and provide the foundation for a more intelligent- Internet of Things (IoT) -supply chain.

The Port of Amsterdam first introduced its Digital Port Programme in 2017. By making data available using digital services, the port became more transparent for users and was able to handle vessels more quickly and intelligently. The port was also the first to create a test zone for aquatic drones and more recently trialled a new monitoring system to explore drone usage in its airspace


As the use of digital technologies becomes more common, the amount of data circulating between platforms and ports will grow exponentially. The need for greater cybersecurity is apparent. In January this year, the Port of Amsterdam adopted a cybersecurity programme to strengthen security, increase digital resilience and improve communications on cyber threats.

High profile cyber attacks. such as 2017’s ‘NotPetya’, highlights the need for all businesses to understand the threats posed by such attacks and the Port of Amsterdam’s programme has been initiated to encourage the proactive involvement of companies in the port area to make joint efforts toward improving cyber resilience.  Every company has been asked to make sure it has implemented basic cybersecurity controls such as an awareness programme, segregation of networks, timely installations of security updates and a multi-layered security approach.


 The ports industry is also exploring other technologies which could well be introduced into everyday operations in the near future. There have been attempts since the 1980s to introduce electronic bills of lading (E-Bills) to replace traditional paper bills. Take-up has been relatively slow, with barriers such as cyber risk and functional equivalence regulatory problems, but developments towards the use of smart contracts, blockchain and distributed ledger technology solutions could drive adoption rates. Ports may very well be the first beneficiaries of Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s visionary hyper-fast travel method that works by propelling pods using magnetic levitation through a low-pressure, near-vacuum tube. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) has partnered with a Port of Hamburg container operator and Dubai’s Jebel Ali port that once operational could see freight transported from the port at speeds up to 1,200 km/h. It is clear that the velocity of technological change is showing no signs of abating and industry players must constantly look at ways to implement new developments, some of which once seemed only possible in science fiction, to remain relevant.

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