Cargo ports are vital transportation hubs in the global economy. All around 90% of all goods traded worldwide per tonnage is transported by sea and in 2021 no less than 3.5 billion tons of cargo passing through EU ports alone.
Antwerp was the second largest port in Europe — with an area of 120 km² — before a fusion with Bruges in 2022 a combined port area of 160 km² and the largest chemical cluster on the continent.
The growing port of València is the largest on the European Mediterranean in terms of container traffic – dating back to 1491. The port authority, Valènciaport, is responsible for València, plus the ports of Gandía and Sagunto along the coast.
Prior to their conversations on TNW Valencia in Marchwe spoke to Erwin Verstraelen, Chief Digital and Innovation Officer at the Port of Antwerp-Bruges, and Juan Manuel Díez, Strategy and Innovation Director at the Port of Valencia, about how they are pursuing the latest technological advances to transform their ports.
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“Ports are not just logistics hubs, they are also becoming the industrial and energy hubs for Europe as part of the European Green Deal, so we are in a complete transformation of our core business and digital innovation plays an important role in that.” Verstraelen told Applied Sciences.
Port ecosystems are facing what Verstaelen calls the ‘perfect storm’ at the intersection of geopolitics, digitization, mobility, sustainable growth and the energy transition.
“We have a very ambitious goal: we want to be carbon neutral by 2030,” Díez from Valencia told TNW in his office overlooking the cargo terminals. “All electricity consumed in the port already comes from renewable sources – we buy it with this condition – but we have our own plans to produce electricity here in the port.”
Valencia’s more than 300 days of sunshine a year will be put to good use as the first of three solar power plants in the port has already been launched. According to Díez, Gandía is on track to become the first energy independent European port.
“We have been thinking about installing wind turbines in our breakwaters for many years, but the technology was not there,” says Díez. “Now things are moving forward and we have plans for our own wind farm in the coming years.”
The new cargo terminal at the port of Valencia will be 98% electrified and the remaining 2% will use hydrogen, he added, making it “certainly the most sustainable terminal in southern Europe”.
Achieving zero emissions means mobilizing the entire port community. Valènciaport recently launched a pioneering project to test the use of green hydrogen for moving machines in the port, with an H2 storage tank and a mobile hydrogen generator. The next phase is testing hydrogen-powered prototypes of a container stacker and tractor.
Access to instant information is essential for ports. Both Antwerp-Bruges and Valencia invest in sophisticated “digital twins” of their port areas.
In Valencia, the digital twin includes a Port Collaborative Decision Making (Port CdM) system, which can reduce a ship’s average call time by 10%.
“Arrivals at a port do not go on a precise clock, but having and using timely information allows the port to prepare in advance, for example by letting a ship know that there is no berth available at the time so that it can delay , less fuel and lower emissions,” Díez said.
According to Verstraelen, the port of Antwerp-Bruges is one of the first in the world to have a digital twin of its territory.
“By equipping the entire port area with sensors, cameras, drones, we create a digital nervous system on top of the physical port,” he says. “And if you bring all those data feeds together in what we call a digital twin, those responsible for safety and security are immediately positioned or alerted if something happens in the port and they can respond immediately.”
Sensors monitor the air quality in the port and detect not only CO2 and other gas emissions, but also volatile organic compounds such as benzene and toluene – essential information given the size of the Antwerp-Bruges chemical cluster.
Once an air quality monitor triggers an alarm, various data sources provide wind speed and direction information to indicate where an emission is coming from, and the location of ships in port based on their Automatic Identification System (AIS) tracker. The data is then filtered to show tankers and rotate cameras in the direction of the emission.
“In real time, you can see that, for example, an illegal or unintentional degassing of a tanker is taking place,” says Verstraelen.
By applying algorithms to AIS data, they create not only situational awareness, but also prescriptive awareness about something that needs to be viewed from a safety, security or operational perspective.
The final step is to predict what will happen a few hours in advance and act accordingly in terms of assigning tugs and pilots, knowing how the wind is going to change or if a storm is coming.
Innovation from the outside in
All this innovation is a springboard for fresh ideas. València is not only an active member of the Spanish Ports 4.0 initiative with its €20 million equity fund, but also has its own acceleration/incubation program, Open top. The program, which works with startups focusing on many aspects of port operations, will also be featured in the València Ecosystem Pavilion at TNW València.
One of the young startups with which the port is collaborating We are Lab. The company has developed ways to plant Posidonia, a Mediterranean seagrass that is tricky to grow, but great for capturing CO2 from the ocean. Posidonia in the piers can be used to clean the surrounding sea.
Zelerosthe Valencia-based Hyperloop scale-up, is also a partner and is currently testing a test track in Sagunto to transport cargo through the port in an emission-free manner.
In the northern part of Antwerp-Bruges, Verstraelen explains that when it comes to stimulating innovation, he cultivates a “what if” mentality and opens up the port as an ecosystem for “outside-in” innovation.
“We decided to open up the port as an innovation platform by inviting promising technologies to demonstrate their added value and enable them to make themselves market-ready more quickly,” says Verstraelen.
One of the notable startups supported by Antwerp-Bruges in 2018 to work on barges is remote control technology startup SEA SHIPPING. The largest concentration of barges in Europe are in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany and they account for about 40% of all cargo passing through Antwerp-Bruges.
However, with older captains retiring and fewer new ones replacing them, the time was right for a major change. In light of these trends, the port went “all in” to enable the four-person startup to demonstrate that its technology could remotely control one of the port’s vessels.
“As a result, they received permission from the regional government to operate ships commercially the following year,” says Verstraelen. “Today SEAFAR is made up of 30 people, there are barge owners building new vessels to be remotely piloted, and they are cruising around commercial cargo with vessels served more than 100 miles away.”
A remote pilot, who can operate three or four vessels at the same time, means a reduction in labor costs and more cargo space on board because no living space is required.
Drones and leaks
In the field of new technology, Antwerp-Bruges emphasizes proof of value instead of proof of concept. Service drones are a good example of this, as the port’s size and complexity make it the perfect testing ground.
The idea of flying several automated drones simultaneously over the port, for oil spill and litter detection, asset management inspections and supporting police and fire services, has been growing since 2018. However, there was no existing legal framework and it was forbidden to do automated drones operate out of line of sight in a no-fly zone such as a harbour.
By demonstrating proof of value and relevant use cases, the government authorities were finally able to approve them and develop legislation for their use in the port.
“We are the fifth largest bunkering facility [supplying fuel for ships] port on the planet and you can imagine accidents happening,” Verstraelen said. “Once we spot an oil spill, it’s important to see where it’s floating and how big it is when we call in the specialist services to clean it up.” Thanks to drones, these teams know what to do and what equipment they need before they leave.
The drones have cameras that provide live feeds to central control, and the port is also developing algorithms that can detect leaks in the camera feed. “You don’t want a ship to go through an oil spill, because then it gets polluted and takes everything with it,” says Verstraelen.
The technology is evolving so fast that “the biggest mistake you can make is saying we tried it in the past and it didn’t work,” said Verstraelen. “If something doesn’t work now, try again in six months, 12, 18 and 24 months.”
He points to speech-to-text AI, which the port tried to use several years ago to translate very high-frequency (VHF) radio communications between ships. The team hoped to mine the data for sentiment analysis pointing to possible conflict between captains, but the technology wasn’t up to the task.
“We tried again a month ago, with the same sound file… and it was 95% perfect. So in less than two years it went from completely useless to completely and utterly usable on a daily basis.
Both ports reflect the leaps the authorities are making to modernise, address climate goals and create global trade hotspots that are ready for the future.
Their efforts are already yielding impressive results. Verstraelen describes the ecosystem of his port as “the most impressive breeding ground for innovation I have ever seen in my life”.
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