Safe harbours for wireless technology

Ports are a vital part of a nation’s critical infrastructure. Dr Dave Sloggett looks at how ports are making increasing use of wireless systems to improve the efficiency of their operations

Safe harbours for wireless technology

In days gone by ports were places where stevedores manually laboured with simple cranes to remove cargos from ships tied up in port for several days at a time. Once ashore the goods were often moved onto warehousing facilities for temporary storage awaiting transportation by road or rail onto their final destination. 

As the global market place has developed, and mechanisms for moving goods by sea have been transformed, ports and harbour facilities have also had to adapt. Most of the world’s sea trade is now distributed through ports and harbours arranged in a hub and spoke architecture. 

A small number of major hubs provide the main point of contact in a global supply chain that moves ninety percent of goods by sea. The spokes in the architecture are then used to move goods by sea onto smaller ports and harbours. The system is very efficient. 

Whereas in the past ports were transit points where goods remained briefly before being routed to warehouses, the main hubs are now huge ports which have the facilities to store large volumes of cars, containers and refrigerated goods for longer periods. 

Super ports

Visit any of the so-called ‘super ports’ and the stacks of containers awaiting being picked up and loaded onto road and rail transport systems cannot fail to impress. The areas now occupied by the large ports are huge by comparison with ports of yesteryear. 

When it becomes operational the new London Gateway facility located on the former Shell Haven site at Thurrock, Essex, UK will have space to receive and process 3.5 million containers a year or just under 10,000 a day. Port facilities have operated on the site at Thurrock since the 16th Century and it occupies an area of 1,500 acres (6.1km2). 

This will make it a rival to the Port of Felixstowe, which handled 3.4 million containers in 2010 for over 100 shipping lines that use the port’s facilities. It operates 24 terminal tractor units, 150 trailers, 13 cranes and 45 reach stackers inside the facilities. The operation of all of these individual units has to be coordinated in order to ensure the port operations run smoothly. 

On the international stage the numbers become even larger. The port of New Jersey in America handles 12.7 million containers, 2.5 million vehicles and 8.9 million tons of general cargo each year. Activities at one of the world’s largest ports in Singapore dwarf even these impressive numbers, handling 23.2 million containers in 2005 and establishing itself as the world’s busiest port in terms of shipping tonnage handled. 

At Singapore there are 44 container berths that can be occupied along a quay length over nearly 13km in length. These are serviced by 143 cranes. The area of the port is quite modest at just over 1,000 acres, which reflects the issues of lack of space in Singapore and the lack of areas required to store vehicles.

In 2011, official figures show the port of Singapore handled 29.94 million containers, the equivalent of just over 82,000 a day. These are huge facilities that are spread out over wide areas on the land and reaching out into often extensive anchorages. 

Ensuring these gigantic facilities operate efficiently requires a whole host of information technology systems to be capable of interoperating and exchanging data. From the picture of which vessels are at anchor and the cargoes they carry to the entry-point of the port where imported and exported goods pass through security checks, the process of moving and storing cargoes has become increasingly mechanised. Given the sheer size of the facilities, laying any form of cable to provide connectivity would be an enormous challenge. 

Wireless backbone

Wireless systems, therefore, offer important advantages to port operators, particularly when ports undergo periods of expansion in their capacity, such as at Felixstowe South where an additional 13 new cranes are being installed and the terminal will be capable of handling the next generation of container ships, such as the Mærsk McKinney Møller, which is
398m in length and can carry 18,270 containers. 

What wireless offers is the ability to create a backbone for communications between the kind of inventory handling systems that know which containers are stacked where on the unloading vessel. The system also handles where and when to load those containers that are sailing to a new destination and which of the fixed and mobile cranes have been assigned to transport them around the port. They can also provide the links into the systems that schedule the arrival of trucks and the associated port security arrangements. 

Once offloaded from the vessel the containers can be moved into temporary holding facilities awaiting onward shipment. High levels of interconnectivity provide the basis for the most efficient handling of cargoes and recording the detailed operations of the ports. 

This includes route maps that provide information on where specific containers waiting to be recovered are currently located. With downtime on cranes causing major problems for capacity, the need to monitor their systems and moving parts is critical so that servicing can be scheduled to reduce outages due to unavailability of equipment. Fire and accident risks, such as collisions, are also major concerns.  

Asset monitoring

Operation of this mix of fixed and mobile equipment, over wide geographic areas, lends itself to wireless-based solutions. This had led to a number of suppliers creating solutions that can be quickly coupled into existing control systems, providing the ability to instrument many of the operational aspects of the ports day-to-day routine, such as the movement of sensitive products that have to be handled in compliance with specific regulatory and safety requirements. 

Small wireless nodes attached to cranes help collect the instrumentation data and route it through the network to central monitoring stations. Differential GPS also features in some mobile units working in ports in order to provide highly accurate location information. This helps the operator of the cranes. 

There are, however, important challenges that have to be overcome. Large areas of stacked metallic containers, massive gantries and vessels tied up alongside are not particularly conducive to the propagation of some radio waves. Lower frequency based solutions can offer penetration, but only provide limited bandwidth. 

The erection of both fixed and rapidly deployable masts (to provide temporary improvements in coverage) are therefore inevitable, but this is far less disruptive than trying to lay cables. Combinations of omni-directional and directional antennas have also to be considered as part of any initial port survey prior to installation of wireless systems.  

Security concerns

Security systems also have to be linked into the backbone. They have to cover large areas of the port facilities including security checkpoints, vehicle monitoring gates, ship entry and exit areas, the quayside, storage areas and the immediate surrounding environs outside the port. Carrying real-time CCTV imagery at sufficient levels of quality requires bandwidth. 

Providing engineering solutions, where each CCTV node is linked to a relatively simple omni-directional router, which can connect the camera feeds to a base station through multiple overlapping pathways, provides important redundancy in the event of partial system failures. The feeds are then routed through to a central command and control centre that provides security to the port. 

Manufacturers supplying this market often provide a range of units that can be configured to meet a specific port or harbour’s geographic layout. A combination of short range (< 2km), medium range (<5 km) and long range (<40 km) devices can be deployed to provide a cost-effective solution. The units adhere to the latest 802.11 Wi-Fi standards and are able to support a variety of speeds of data depending upon the availability of local spectrum. 

In some cases speeds ranging up to 4Gbps can be supported over distances of several tens of kilometres. Data passing over the networks is also encrypted to prevent anyone trying to eavesdrop on the data passing over the networks. In recognition of the advantages offered by wireless, the largest port operator in the United Kingdom, Associated British Ports, decided in 2010 to move its communications infrastructure over to the 802.11 standard. 

This backbone gave it greater flexibility when it comes to introducing new computer solutions into the 21 ports it currently operates (see feature on page 22). For the wireless industry this was a huge vote of confidence. It provides another example of how wireless systems offer significant commercial advantages to their user community even in what might be thought of as quite a geographically demanding environment.

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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