An ancient seaport meets the age of AI

The Port of Rotterdam wants to become the world’s smartest port

By | 2 minute read | March 15, 2018

The Port of Rotterdam. Image by Siebe Swart

The 800-year-old port of Rotterdam handles 140,000 vessels and 461 million tons of cargo annually, but when does size meet efficiency? How does Europe’s largest seaport become the smartest?

“It’s one of the greatest ports in the world, but we need to change and transform because the future is somewhere else: digitization,” said Paul Smits, Port of Rotterdam Chief Financial Officer.

What does it take to become the smartest, and most sustainable, port in the world? The answer, port officials say, is Internet of Things technology, which can uncover new insights from data shared across the port’s 42 kilometer (26 mile) site.

“When ships approach our port, we need to tell them everything they need to know for a seamless journey to the berth, including the depth of water, weather conditions, whether they need tugboats, when they are expected at the berth and more,” said Smits. “IoT lets us coordinate through an easy-to-use digital dashboard.”

So how do you connect an entire port? The key is a combination of IoT sensors, data from the Weather Company (an IBM business), and AI that learns from data, analyzes options, and predicts the best path.

With those tools, port operators can identify the most favorable conditions for ships to enter and relay that to the ships in real time through a digital dashboard.

The breadth of data is impressive. It includes information about tides, currents, air temperature, wind speeds, humidity, turbidity and salinity of the water—all of which help better predict visibility on a given day to calculate clearance heights for ships.

Insights into that data help reduce shipping costs by allowing ships to come and go more quickly and safely and to carry more cargo. Shaving even an hour from the berthing process can save ship operators $80,000. The potential extends beyond operational savings as well: the digitized information allows shipping companies to plan delivery times with greater certainty.

Another port innovation is a 3D printing field lab, which produces quality industrial spare shipping parts whenever and wherever they’re needed. The production process, which uses a robotic welding arm to create on-demand ship components like propellers, infuses both AI and IoT technology. While the traditional manufacturing process might take six to eight weeks, it’s estimated this 3D printing process could reduce that down to just over eight days.

The port also created smart quay walls and sensor-equipped buoys dubbed “digital dolphins.” These provide insights into a berthing terminal’s use and the surrounding water and weather conditions. They also identify the optimal time and location for ships to dock. AI then learns from those data patterns to feed accurate, immediate data about the port’s infrastructure into the digital dashboard.

The Port of Rotterdam aims to host autonomous ships by 2025, meaning that vessels themselves will calculate optimal shipping routes, flag unsafe conditions, communicate with other connected vessels to avoid collision, and operate autonomously.