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Port of Rotterdam uses floating lab to learn about automation in harbour

A ship will soon be converted to a floating laboratory to test automation technologies at the Netherlands port

The port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands is the busiest in Europe, and one of the busiest in the world. Keen to employ the latest technology, it is now testing out the benefits of automation and looking at ways to implement it.

One of the ways it is trying to achieve this is by using a boat as a floating laboratory, which companies from around Rotterdam and elsewhere in the Netherlands can use.

The port authority hopes some of the ideas worked on in the lab might advance the use of autonomy in the port’s operations.

“We noticed that many startups and researchers were having trouble finding an appropriate platform to test out their new technologies,” said project manager Harmen Van Dorsser. “We had a boat available, including crew, which we made available for this purpose.”

The port is creating an “ecosystem of innovation”, said Van Dorsser, adding: “We want to work with everyone who innovates in the nautical industry.”

The floating lab is an old, decommissioned patrol ship that the port authority renovated and repurposed for research. It was kitted out with cameras to observe and measure objects ranging from other boats to bridges and quays. It is also being fitted with sensors, radar technology and various communication equipment that might help to automate the port, but the exact purpose of the floating lab has deliberately been kept in broad terms.

“There are many things we need to find out before we can apply more forms of automation in the port,” said Van Dorsser. “For instance, ships that use cameras generate and send massive amounts of video images – we are talking about terabytes per second. We have to find out how to deal with that, to see if we can even transfer and process such large amounts of data.”

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Van Dorsser also wants to use the lab ship to work with the port’s existing sensors, which measure things such as water levels and the weather. “We want to see if we can make these measurements more mobile so we can measure from different locations in the harbour,” he said.

But automation of port traffic is not a goal in itself, said Van Dorsser. "It’s a means, not an end. There are many areas where automation can add value to our work, but fully automating everything in the harbour is practically impossible.”

Safety in the port could be an area for automation, he added. “If there is a fire, it could be good to deploy an autonomous vessel to keep a crew out of harm’s way. Scenarios like that are interesting for us to study.”

Innovations developed at Rotterdam’s floating lab could be useful for the Netherlands in general, he said. “If we can convince high-tech companies to settle in this area because of the knowledge base we can provide, we will stimulate both the Rotterdam and the Dutch economies.”

Open data

To that end, Van Dorsser said all datasets generated by the floating lab will be provided to anyone who wants access. “Openness is very important to us,” he said. “That way, we show our willingness to cooperate with others.”

The floating lab is not just an innovation, but also an invitation, said Van Dorsser. The port will welcome students who are studying artificial intelligence (AI), he added. “Our data will be their use case.”

The port has already welcomed its first partner in the project. Captain AI, a Rotterdam startup for nautical automation, will begin applying AI to the data generated by the floating lab. “That way, we can teach computers to sail by themselves,” said founder Vincent Wegener. “We are basically training the first artificial captains.”

But this isn’t Rotterdam’s first step towards automation. Earlier this year, the port announced a partnership with IBM to apply internet of things (IoT) and AI technologies to prepare it for automation. According to chief financial officer Paul Smits, the port should be able to host its first autonomous ships in 2025.

Reducing the time that ships are berthed in the port could save millions of euros, Smits told Computer Weekly. “Here in Rotterdam, we are taking action to become the smartest port in the world,” he added. 

Other tech developments at the port include smart quay walls and buoys with sensors, which will provide data about berthing terminals and the surrounding water and weather conditions. These will help to determine the optimal time for ships to dock.

Also, 3D metal printing in the shipyards of RDM Rotterdam will use cognitive IoT technology from IBM in a production process that will create ship components such as propellers in just 200 hours, rather than more than six weeks.

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