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Autonomous ships on Dutch horizon

The Port of Rotterdam is creating an environment where autonomous ships will become the norm, through IoT and IBM Watson

The Port of Rotterdam is moving closer to its plan to enable autonomous ships to call into port, and is currently replacing thousands of sensors to be compatible with the IBM Watson Platform it purchased in 2018.

The internet of things (IoT) strategy of the Port of Rotterdam is driven by two main challenges: transition from using fossil fuels and digitisation of processes and information.

The ultimate goal is autonomous ships. Think huge fuel-efficient vessels with a skeleton crew and an artificial brain, that sail the seas sustainably and navigate ports with great accuracy, thanks to rapid data exchange with terminals, agents and customs authorities.

Shipping companies and container terminals are making great strides towards that goal, says Jeroen Ramakers, IT Architect at the Port of Rotterdam Authority: “Our customers are automating everything that can be [automated].

“Today, when visiting the large container terminals, such as Rotterdam World Gateway, you hardly see any people walking the grounds. Our customers are way ahead of us in the digitisation of their operations.”

The first autonomous ships will still have crews on board for navigation. In later phases, the captain can perhaps steer his ship from shore and the vessel will navigate the seas autonomously.

But before any of this can become reality, all relevant data needs to flow seamlessly between all parties involved. Data such as water and weather conditions, terminal capacity and logistics.

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In 2018, the Port of Rotterdam Authority purchased IBM’s IoT Platform Watson. Working with networking giant Cisco and IT services company Axians, the port started to collect a variety of weather and water data including water level, currents, saline levels, wind and visibility.

Saline levels are relevant because a higher percentage of salt in the water means a greater buoyancy, and this affects a vessel’s fuel consumption. “We replaced these five sensor types so they worked with Watson,” said Ramakers. “It was the hardest task we gave our supplier. Once that was done, we could start changing other sensors, too.”

Previously, sensor data was read, translated into information, analysed and turned into forecasts. “Now we can very accurately calculate conditions 24 hours in advance,” said Ramakers. “Our aim is to create one generic platform that collects all data: that means replacing thousands and thousands of existing sensors in quaysides, roads and boulders. All that data needs to come together in one platform that will be able to communicate with autonomous ships.

A port of Rotterdam spokesperson said that data has already led to a surprising cost saving. “When we constructed quaysides, we built them to withstand the forces of ever larger ships,” they said.

“However, our sensors have measured these ships are actually not taxing the quaysides as much as we had calculated. Now can now start constructing more cost-efficient quaysides that require less material and match the required functionality.”

The drive to automating shipping is a global challenge, and the Port of Rotterdam is of the international network organisation, known as Port Call Optimization. It meets regularly to discuss and agree upon standards for data exchange. “We have to work together – nobody can do this on their own,” said Ramakers.

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