Back on board: why connectivity is key for the future of maritime post COVID-19

The maritime sector plays a critical part in the UK economy, with responsibility for the majority of our imports and exports. Maritime UK estimates that this sector alone enables 9 percent of all UK trade and supports over 1.1 million jobs.

But this makes the industry particularly vulnerable to macroeconomic shocks and poor performance in the rest of the UK economy. The wider effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have hit this industry hard: from the disruption to supply chains that have affected logistics firms, to the crippling effects on passenger transport businesses (like ferries and cruises) a lot needs to happen to get the industry back up to its pre-COVID-19 levels.

With this in mind, Maritime UK has worked with its trade association and members to create a comprehensive Sector Recovery Plan. The plan gives recommendations for both industry and government on the three stages of recovery; restart, recover, renew.

This can be further broken down into five top priorities:

  • Environment: to meet the UK’s net-zero commitments
  • Regional growth: to stimulate economic development in coastal communities
  • People: to enrich our workforce and encourage suitable working practices
  • Innovation: to respond to the significant challenges and opportunities ahead
  • Competitiveness: to maximise the attractiveness of UK business

Exploration of digital transformation towards ‘smart ports,’ (which had already started prior to the pandemic) may help address many of these goals. These ports employ digital technologies to continually improve safety, efficiency, yield and environmental impact – technologies that are more complex to implement throughout larger estates. Other ports then gain some of the benefits of this via their interactions with the smaller ports.

Digitalisation and increased connectivity can also lead to cost-effective route to recovery and renewal for the UK maritime sector. SSE Enterprise Telecoms’ role in bringing high capacity, high availability, resilient connectivity to remote Maritime and Coastguard Agency locations is just one example of our experience and expertise in this area. In partnership with Telent, a leading technology and network services company, we are deploying a resilient Ethernet network directly into 165 coastguard remote radio sites to keep the agency connected 24/7, 365 days a year. Read the full announcement here.

How getting ‘smart’ can aid recovery

Our ports face some specific issues either created or exacerbated by the pandemic: trade slumps, closed borders and stranded travellers – and with partial lifting of lockdowns, being overwhelmed by renewed production, leaving some unable to process or store cargo. On top of this, the full impact of Brexit is starting to be felt with changes in the way ports can move cargo and people since 1 January 2021. This will will have a huge impact on the maritime sector, and could severely damage productivity for those who aren’t adequately prepared.

Transitioning to smart ports could help alleviate many of these issues, as digitalisation can help to streamline operations with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automated systems, plus increased data collection and processing. Investing in digitalisation can also strengthen the post-COVID business case, taking the strain off new regulatory pressures. 

The cranes, conveyors, pumps and port vehicles that move goods on or off ships and transport them through the port for storage and further processing, can all be automated through Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology. Ships can also benefit from automation, either via complete autonomous control or remote command systems. Ports could also employ AI to automate smart storage, processing and security. Automation offers obvious cost-effectiveness, as well as bringing speed and efficiency improvements by reducing human error. Such reductions can also improve safety and environmental performance by minimising energy consumption and the associated emissions.

Pre-pandemic, maritime stakeholders were already exploring the best ways to improve how ports, carriers and related parties should share and standardise data. Most consider this vital for long-term growth and recognise the need for new technologies, new thinking and collaboration.

All these applications require robust, reliable connectivity, higher data capacity and better management of application routing to optimise bandwidth use and data traffic. That means working with experienced partners who can advise on best practice, large-scale implementation, and cybersecurity.

Connectivity is the key

Rotterdam, Antwerp, and Singapore have already launched smart ports, involving partnerships between local port authorities, government, academic institutions and shipping/logistics companies. The potential benefits of emulating these partnerships in the UK are clear: Rotterdam, for example, now moves between 25 and 50 percent more containers per hour than any other port in Northern Europe.

But these improvements require connectivity comparable to that available inland. In the UK, connectivity in ports and coastal areas (along with other non-urban areas) currently lags behind that of our major cities. Creating smart ports will depend on the rollout of industrial Wi-Fi or 5G, ideally backed up with hard-wired networks, for low-latency, high-speed connectivity with high redundancy.

Antwerp and Rotterdam, for example, have not only made it possible to connect IIoT devices, but also offer high capacity connectivity for visiting seafarers – whereas most ports still use Very High Frequency (VHF) radio to connect ship crews with shore teams. This enables a seamless exchange of operational and transactional data.

Another innovation made possible by improved connectivity is real-time port-call optimisation platforms. This will allow shipping companies, agents, terminal operators, and service providers to share an operational view and exchange information on a dedicated platform, transforming the flow of ships in and out of ports. Combining publicly available data with that submitted by participants, all stakeholders can see both real-time and planned overviews of the port and vessels, while collaborative communication tools can reduce planning and administration time.

Connectivity, and the infrastructure it relies on, will be vital for the recovery of ports and the longer-term project to create smart ports to protect long-term growth in the maritime sector. With solid connectivity and best-in-class deployment teams for remote, difficult to access locations, there’s no sea change big enough to knock your port off course.

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