Take me to the river
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:
Credit: HPA/Andreas Schmidt-Wiethoff

Philip Mason looks at two innovative European projects which use 5G and IoT technology to improve efficiency in ports and on the water

One of the key 5G use-cases – at least if the pre-roll-out hype is to be believed – is the role that the technology is anticipated to play in the automation of cars.

As keenly as we anticipate this, however, the road isn’t the only environment in which massively increased bandwidth and infinitesimal latency could provide huge benefits. With that in mind, in this issue of Land Mobile, we’re focusing on two European projects centred around the use of the technology in relation to shipping.

These include a Dutch initiative – currently in the planning stage – which if successful will see semi-automated barges potentially solving the problem of traffic congestion in the country’s major cities. First up though is the Port of Hamburg, which is currently acting as a test-bed, through which is being explored the potential benefits of 5G network slicing.

Test bed royalty
Serving the second-largest city in Germany, the 8,000-hectare Port of Hamburg handles around nine million TEUs (20-foot equivalent units, aka giant shipping containers) a year. These in turn hold in the region of 137 million tonnes of cargo, making the port one of the busiest facilities of its kind in Europe.

Speaking of the origins of the current 5G test bed situated in the port, Hendrik Roreger – who heads the project – says: “MoNArch is a Euro-funded initiative, split across two sites. In Turin, they’re focusing on business-to-consumer, while in Port of Hamburg we’re looking at business-to business.”

He continues: “The project is primarily about exploring different use-cases in relation to network slicing. The three core aspects which we’re exploring at the PoH are the use of environmental sensors on barges, the integration of traffic lights, as well as the real-time use of augmented reality by the port’s engineers.

“While these are not exactly arbitrary – they’re all business-critical functions as far as we’re concerned – the thing we’re primarily concerned with is the network itself. All the equipment we’re using in the project exists in prototype form. This is not a pilot, and there’s no ‘pre-production’ hardware being rolled out.”

For those who aren’t aware, alongside the expected massive increases in bandwidth and so on, one of the core benefits being floated in relation to 5G will be the ability to create the discrete aforementioned virtual network ‘slices’, according to particular, very specific use-cases. As Roreger explains it, this will – or so he believes – eventually enable business customers to arrange bespoke contracts with suppliers, in essence creating a phenomenon to which he refers as “infrastructure as a service”.

Focusing on the Port of Hamburg ‘slices’ in particular, Roreger describes the aim of the barge sensors as being to provide environmental information in real time with no loss of connectivity at any point across the site. “This doesn’t sound too impressive, in that it’s something you would already be able to accomplish using an LTE network,” he says. “The impressive thing with what we’ve set up is that the handover time is down to around five milliseconds, compared with 100 using 4G. Those are field results, not theoretical, and we’re continuing to scale up the testing process all the time.”

Turning his attention to the use of augmented reality, meanwhile, he says: “Hamburg Port Authority has a team of around 100 engineers, all of whom tend to need to travel to the port area from our office, a journey which takes them at least half an hour each way.”

He continues: “We want to give engineers the ability to have a live connection straight from the site, through the use of an AR headset. The core idea is that we’ll be able to draw instructions within people’s field of vision, for instance when checking construction variants on site. We’re trying to transfer and sync the information in real time, which again requires a lot of broadband data.”

As mentioned, the Port of Hamburg is an enormous, very heavily used facility, situated in one of the biggest cities in Europe. That being the case, why was it considered an appropriate site for the roll-out of such an experimental project?

“As large as the port is, it’s still ultimately quite a limited geographical area,” says Roreger. “It’s also situated incredibly conveniently in the south of the city near a pre-existing radio tower. We were able to install antennas covering the whole port really easily.

“The other reason Hamburg was chosen is because of the opportunity it provides to analyse the impact of the new technology across a large urban area. When the 5G is finally ready for production, we will already have a lot of information about which use-cases will benefit from network slicing.”

Discussing the future direction of the project, as well as its possible end point, he concludes: “We’re optimistic going forward, both about MoNArch and the technology itself. That said, there’s still a lot of questions to be answered, not just about the use-case but also about the business case behind it. The project officially ends in the summer of next year, but we’re exploring ways to extend it. We want to go beyond the learning.”

Technology for the Port of Hamburg MoNArch project has been provided by Deutsche Telekom and Nokia.

Semi-automated hydrogen barges
If the Port of Hamburg is an example of what can be achieved with next-generation digital communications technology across a single site, there is another project involving water-based transport which is promising to have a profound impact on a much wider area. This one takes place a few hundred miles south west in the Dutch city of Delft.

According to a statement released by Nokia – which is one of its key providers, as in Hamburg – the Delft ‘semi-automated barge’ initiative is aimed at reducing traffic congestion through the use of pre-existing waterways running through the city. It is part of a wider public/private smart city project also involving the likes of Dell EMC, Blue Turtle Associates, as well as the University of Delft and the Province of South Holland Regional Government. From the technology side, the aim, again according to the statement, is to provide a “common information space” for those involved, in particular in the realm of logistics.

Providing some background to the project, as well as some geographical context, senior business development manager at Nokia Hans Leijting says: “The programme was initiated by the Province of South Holland, with Delft chosen because of its location in between the Port of Rotterdam and The Hague. The idea was to mitigate the level of crowding, which we’re now seeing across Holland in all the big cities, in particular by getting some of the larger haulage vehicles off of the road. If the roll-out is successful, we can certainly see the technology being used in other municipalities.”

He continues: “There are a lot of rivers in the country, which we’re just not exploiting in the way that we could be. Now we have this new technology, we want to use these traditional transport channels – which we were famous for, for many years – to solve these issues. We want to have the solution up and running by the end of next year, which is quite ambitious but still achievable from our point of view.”

Moving on to the technology itself, Leijting speaks of bringing together all of the organisations involved in the “logistics value chain”. From Nokia’s point of view, this means the deployment of its IMPACT IoT device management platform, which the company describes as also being able to integrate data collection and subscription management. Working alongside Nokia, meanwhile, Dell EMC will provide data analysis across the project. This will be in the service – as indicated above – of operating what Leijting refers to as “automated and digitised hydrogen-powered river barges”.

Leijting continues: “Regarding the automation process itself, it should actually be relatively easy to test the technology, simply because the river is a much slower, much quieter environment, at least compared to a road. The intention is ultimately to set the barges on a pre-determined route from one destination to another, although the infrastructure itself is still being debated. Pre-5G pilots are currently being looked at across the country, so it would make sense to combine the project with those.”

As well as making the urban landscape less congested and therefore safer, the project also coincides with ongoing concerns in relation to the environment and the effort to decrease CO2 emissions. “Another factor which will ultimately accelerate the automated barge programme are directives currently being issued by the EU focusing on air quality and so on,” says Leijting.

He continues: “Already, if you look at Germany, diesel engines are not allowed in some city centres, and where they go as a country, the rest of Europe tends to follow. Another benefit of incorporating this kind of IoT technology on the barges themselves is that they could in theory monitor water quality as well as the state of the river bed itself.”

According to Leijting, the barge will start in its preliminary phase as semi-autonomous, which equates to level two if we’re using road vehicles as a context. “After a relatively short timeframe it will upgrade to level three, which is highly automated. Level five – full automation – will occur in a timeframe of five years. Of course, a lot of items depend on regulation and implementation of 5G technology in The Netherlands, for instance.”

The two projects described in this article only scratch the surface of what might be possible when 5G technology is finally monetised and rolled out in environments larger than isolated test beds. Keep reading Land Mobile for all the latest developments in the field.

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