How 5G will accelerate shipping digitalization

18 July 2022

Shutterstock 1858325527 750x375

​In 1979, Japan launched the first generation of mobile network, also known as 1G. A few decades later, 5G is making headlines for the endless possibilities it can open up to the world, transforming, not only the corporate landscape, but also the everyday life. The adoption of 5G technologies is specifically seen as an optimization solution for the transport and logistics sector. How is 5G expected to support digitalization of the shipping industry?

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of cellular networks, for a better mobile internet experience. Providing up to 100 times faster connectivity speeds than 4G and greater bandwidth, 5G is expected to dramatically enhance day-to-day experiences. For instance, to download a 2-hour high-definition movie, a user would need around 5 months with the 1G, 6 days with the 2G, 4 hours with the 3G, and 5 minutes with the 4G, but just 3 seconds with the 5G. It becomes understood that the 5G speed could transform industries, paving the way for services that we used to see as “futuristic”, such as e-health -translating into even tele-assisted surgical interventions-, as well as connected vehicles and traffic systems.

Digitalization and automation are the two main challenges that ports have to encounter. In today’s connected world, port digitalization cannot be accomplished without a 5G network that will deliver data efficiently and securely. As such, the concept of 5G for shipping is mostly discussed for port optimization. In the ports segment, 5G is seen as a way to speed up data exchanges between actors involved in terminal operations and to enable massive real-time data collection and analytics, increase intelligent automation, and lay the groundwork for better coordination between humans and devices.

It is often heard that 5G can revolutionize logistics by tackling current port challenges. For instance, the growing shortage of truck drivers and the wasted terminal time due to paperwork and poor digital insight into traffic cost Belgium and The Netherlands alone around 100 million euros in unnecessary costs per year. And while fully autonomous transport is not yet feasible under all operational conditions, teleoperation could actually add to the next level in logistics. In teleoperation, humans still monitor and operate trucks and vessels but from a distant control center. To make this work, communication between vehicles and control rooms needs to be fast, secure, widely available and reliable at all times, exactly the promise that 5G delivers.

This results in more efficient operations for several parties involved in the supply chain. For instance, instead of waiting for cargo at a terminal and adding avoidable costs, an operator can take remote control of several different vehicles for short and long-distance transport just by pressing the screen. Additional automated driving functions can maneuver a truck in low-risk situations like congested traffic and terminal docking with remote oversight.

But in what other ways can 5G help the shipping industry?

5G for safety: In ports, the remote control of unmanned land vehicles for loading and unloading operations could enhance the safety of port personnel. At sea, sophisticated connectivity could mean unmanned vessels. This could imply ships spending much more time at sea than human-controlled ones, which would result in increased productivity, decreased reliance on human resources, and less possibilities for human error. Meanwhile, faster Internet speeds can enable better connectivity for the sensors that can assist in search and rescue efforts by providing real-time information and accurate positioning of downed or stranded vessels.

5G for monitoring: In addition, 5G is expected to facilitate the use of sophisticated drones to enable real-time monitoring of ships while maneuvering in port areas and regulate the ship traffic in advance. Onboard ships, such as container ships, sophisticated Internet of Things sensors could help better monitoring of goods in transit. 5G private networks could ideally enable the coverage required to monitor potentially thousands of these connected containers and even individual goods within containers.

5G for efficiency: In general, IoT-connected sensors generate vast amounts of data that shipping companies can collect, analyze and turn into insights that improve operations. Needless to say, the IoT-connected sensors powered by 5G connectivity can enable greater remote operation and control for the faster integration of autonomous ships.

The current 5G landscape in shipping

5G has been a buzzword in the last two years and the shipping industry is unlikely to stay unaffected. Earlier in 2022, MPA Singapore revealed plans to implement 5G to improve vessel movement and enhance traffic management in its busy port waters. Hutchison Ports Sohar in the Middle East, the UK Ports of Southampton and Felixstowe, the Italian Port of Livorno, the Spanish Port of Barcelona, and the Belgian Port of Antwerp are only a few ports that have trialed or implemented the 5G option in the last two years, in a bid to enhance their operations.

In 2020, the EU launched the 5G-Blueprint project, aiming to develop a technical architecture, business, and governance model for uninterrupted cross-border teleoperated transport based on 5G connectivity. To achieve this, it explores the economics of 5G tools in cross-border transport and logistics as well as passenger transport. This means that the project is examining both the economics of 5G tools -bringing capital expenditure (CAPEX) and operational expenditure (OPEX) into view- and the governance issues related to the Dutch and Belgian regulatory frameworks.

"Digitalization benefits transport, and our maritime sector is no exception. In this respect, 5G has real potential, allowing speedier exchange of data in larger volumes…5G has the potential to improve onboard connectivity and, subsequently, the well-being of both working seafarers and passengers onboard,"

…said Adina-Ioana Vălean, European Commissioner for Transport.