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Port of Felixstowe

  • 5 minute read
  • Published on 13 Jan 2021
  • Last modified 13 Jan 2021
Most of the projects that enjoy DCMS funding are attaching conventional handsets to 5G. Some have home routers and a few exotic virtual reality headsets. The Port of Felixstowe is attaching 2000-tonne cranes.

5G and IoT to revolutionise marine industry

The lead consortium member of the Port of Felixstowe 5G Create project is Hutchison Ports, which comprises Felixstowe, London Thamesport and Harwich International Port. There is a telecoms clue in the name: Hutchison refers to CK Hutchison, the £100bn conglomerate that also owns Three UK, which is also a project partner. Working on the project with Hutchison Ports is the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University and Blue Mesh Solutions Limited, which specialises in the internet of things (IoT) and will be putting sensors on the cranes.

The numbers are spectacular; a container can weigh up to 35 tonnes, and the biggest boats, the kinds that are handled by Felixstowe’s Landguard and Trinity Terminals, where the project is based, can carry over 20,000 containers. Two types of crane are used: the tall quay cranes, which lift containers off the ships, and yard cranes, which shift containers onto lorries. The port has 31 quay cranes and 82 yard cranes, although not all of them will be 5G-enabled for the programme.

Crane at Port of Felixstowe

The project will give remote access to a crane to ensure that it remains under human control while the operator stays in a safe, warm, office-like environment. The result won’t just be nicer for the crane operator but will lead to significant efficiencies in the running of the port and will ease recruitment issues by helping with staff diversification.

Karen Poulter, Head of Information Systems for Hutchison Ports UK, explains: “It’s getting increasingly hard to attract talent to the ports and we need to ensure we can appeal to the whole diversity of the potential workforce. We see the 5G project as an opportunity to appeal to a wider group by creating new, exciting approaches to traditional roles and problems.”

5G to boost safety in crane management

Globally, Hutchison Ports is committed to the automation of cranes, but connectivity is an issue. It’s not practical to run cables across a dockside. Each of the connected cranes has over 20 cameras, and manoeuvring containers requires lag-free connections. It’s a task tailor-made for 5G’s triumvirate of reliability, high bandwidth and low latency.

Port of Felixstowe control room

A major factor in this is safety; if a crane loses connection, even for a millisecond, it stops, and this downtime has significant cost consequences. Hutchison is also using 5G to expedite predictive maintenance of quay cranes, specifically the spreader (a high-tech replacement for the hook in a conventional crane), which has been identified as being prone to failure. This is the use case in which Cambridge University and Blue Mesh Solutions are involved. Sensor technology will monitor factors such as temperature changes, vibrations and noise to provide data that will be fed into an AI engine. This will be used to develop a predictive maintenance algorithm that will optimise when cranes are taken out of service. The system should produce a smart way of working, with fewer failures, less downtime and lower maintenance costs.  Poulter says: “We estimate multi-million pound savings from improved availability and better scheduling of planned maintenance.” 

Bringing 5G into the port is a new way of thinking for the operation. It will require linkage of information technology and operational technology. Hutchison wants to use 5G and its inherent security protocols to start to join some of this data, so it is looking at AI around the sensors. Poulter relishes the change: “We won’t just be looking at the sensor information, we’ll be looking at our core data that’s held in our terminal operating system and our other business management systems, such as around finance.”

Felixstowe has a 4G private network run by Three. The new network will add to this with a local core, run as a 5G standalone network. Poulter explains: “Our 4G is still dependent on the core that’s within Three so we route out to London and back in again. Latency is less of an issue with 4G because of the application, but we have to throttle that bandwidth to keep the latency. When we move to 5G we will have a local core.”

The first new kit will be delivered early in 2021 and configured in a lab, with exhaustive testing before any roll-out into the live port environment. The aim is to have the 5G core running by mid-2021, and in-situ testing is planned for the end of 2021.

It’s expected that the project will be important in Hutchison’s bid to become a freeport across Felixstowe and Harwich. 

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