The Port of Felixstowe in England has deployed Autonomous Tractor (AT) units to assist in container movements between terminals. A number of operational benefits exist with AT deployment, but private cellular networks and cybersecurity must form part of ports automation strategies.
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The First Driverless Addition to Felixstowe's Operations
In December 2022, the Port of Felixstowe announced the introduction of two autonomous terminal tractor units (ATs) supplied by Shanghai-based manufacturer Westwell. The ATs are to be used initially to transport containers between the Trinity container terminal and the port’s North intermodal rail terminal. While Felixstowe has long invested in upgrading equipment and advancing internal systems, the AT deployment is the first addition of fully driverless vehicles to support container management.
The ATs utilize both LiDAR technology and a digital map of the port loaded into Felixstowe’s fleet management system to navigate. Using LiDAR and on-board 360-degree cameras, the ATs develop an instantaneous ‘vision’ of their immediate surroundings and can achieve positioning accuracy down to 2 cm, with a steering angle accuracy of 0.5 degrees.
Announcement of the ATs came at the same time as the port settled its ongoing dispute with workers over 2023 pay. Following strike action in both August and September that led to many carriers diverting volume away to other UK ports, the port and union agreed an 8.5% pay increase plus a £1,000 bonus, with over 90% of workers voting in favor.
A Helping Hand to Keep Megaships on the Move
The support of ATs is a welcomed addition to Felixstowe’s operational workforce. Container ships are getting bigger, holding a greater number of containers per ship and placing additional strain on loading and unloading operations at ports. According to analysis by Allianz, the number of 20-foot containers that ships are able to carry has increased by 1,500% in the last fifty years, with Megaships becoming a go to for trade as companies seek greater economies of scale.
In March 2022, Felixstowe set a new internal record for the most containers handled on a single ship: 27,961 TEU (standard containers) handled on the MSC AMELIA. Current dredging operations due to be completed in 2023 are paving the way for Felixstowe to handle more and more of these larger ships, rapidly requiring efficiencies to be found within operations to ensure ship turnover is not impacted as a result of growth intentions.
On top of providing operational support, AT deployment is expected to provide Felixstowe with:
- Reduction of costs per handled container.
- Enhanced reliability, consistency, and predictability of port operations with enhanced data analytics.
- Mitigation of industry driver shortages.
- Reduction in human related disruptions leading to less downtime and safer operations.
- More attractive destination for clientele due to goods movement streamlining and traceability.
Similar deployments of ATs have occurred at the Port of Vlissingen (Netherlands) and Laem Chabang Port (Thailand), both successfully integrating within mixed traffic terminal operations and forming part of the ports wider strategies to optimize and grow handling capabilities.
Network and Security Considerations Key to Successful Deployement
Taking on autonomous equipment requires wider considerations to port infrastructure, and establishing the right private network is essential to ensuring AT connection and data feed reliability. Despite Wi-Fi being the cheaper option, private cellular networks are the go-to for port connectivity.
The two primary issues with Wi-Fi are one, it is a short-range technology, requiring multiple access points that need to be synchronized to avoid latencies; and two, Wi-Fi does not operate well in adverse weather conditions, something that is fairly guaranteed for ports. The ability of a 5G private network to overcome these limitations and provide stronger outdoor connectivity makes it an imperative addition to ports automation initiatives, allowing immediate reliability and foundations for further asset connectivity. Key telecom players have identified this use case for 5G private networks. Notable deployments have been seen at the Port of Plymouth, delivered by Nokia and Vodafone in partnership, and at the Port of Seattle delivered by Tideworks Technology in partnership with Nokia. Further, the Saudi Ports Authority announced their Smart Ports initiative back in March 2022, aiming to leverage 5G networks from Huawei and Ericsson to support automation.
As part of deployment and scalability initiatives, cybersecurity must be a primary concern for both port authorities and solution vendors. According to firm Naval Dome, maritime cyberattacks increased by 400% in 2020 and continue to exacerbate ongoing shipping issues. Ports are ultimately bottlenecks within global supply chains, bringing significant amounts of trade volume through single points ready for onward distribution. Any downtime in port activity due to a cyber-attack will have an effect both up and downstream, leading to empty shelves, loss of product life or spoiled stock, skewed order and fulfilment flow, costly diversions, and damaged reputation. Accountability for IT and OT system infrastructure must be established and effectively maintained to ensure that networks and the connectivity between multiple stakeholders does not leave open access to cyber criminals.
The timing of Felixstowe’s AT deployment coinciding with the worker 2023 pay settlement offers an interesting addition to the automation vs. job security debate, presenting an instance where automation and worker development can be achieved simultaneously, offering a solution to driver shortages, and helping to achieve stronger operational capacity without taking jobs away. However, ports must continue to play an active role in ensuring that their workforce are trained and adapted in accordance with any future automation plans. Deploying ATs will develop new roles, requiring ongoing maintenance as well as allowing the port to diversify into new areas that will require worker buy in. Working closely with workers and unions is imperative to successful, collaborative automation deployments.