Innovation takes the port into a new era

17 October 2018
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The RDM campus in Rotterdam is normally buzzing with innovation. During Innovation Expo 2018, that buzz was amplified many times over. On the Heijplaat, companies and institutions from all over the Netherlands presented their ideas for improving the living environment. Rotterdam port is taking the lead in this. ‘We have two options: join in or lose our position.’

Innovation Expo is the government event at which companies, research institutes and social organisations present their innovations to the public. In and around the RDM Onderzeebootloods, scores of innovations - from drones to cargo bikes and from 3D printers to fuel cells - were set up with a single common goal: to improve the living environment. Rotterdam port is an important part of that living environment, as Allard Castelein, CEO of the Rotterdam Port Authority, made clear in his keynote speech. ‘With the Climate Act, the government committed to reducing CO2 emissions by 49% in 2030. The port area is responsible for as much as 20% of those emissions. If we do not succeed in successfully reducing emissions, the Netherlands will never be able to realise the targets for 2030.’

‘Digital twin’ of the port

Automated sailing is one of the spearheads of the theme of digitisation. The new Floating Lab, a converted patrol boat which will digitally map the port, attracted a great deal of attention during Innovation Expo 2018. That digital map is a condition for manoeuvring unmanned ships from the North Sea to the right quay in the future. ‘What has already been possible in aviation for years must surely be possible in shipping too. We contribute towards that by building a “digital twin” of our port with the Floating Lab,’ Castelein explains.

The Floating Lab is equipped with two stereo cameras and six 360º cameras. The images from those cameras are recorded together with other data, such as the sailing speed, current speed, weather information and tidal information. Other parties, such as students of The Hague University of Applied Sciences, can use the images and data to create a digital model of the port. Ton van der Weele of the Rotterdam Port Authority is one of the driving forces behind the Floating Lab. In his view, automated shipping only offers benefits. ‘A human cause lies behind three quarters of incidents on the water. If we eliminate those through automatic sailing, we make shipping a lot safer. It’s also increasingly difficult to find crew members.’

Running thousands of scenarios

Apart from the universities, the start-up Captain AI also makes use of the Floating Lab data. ‘With help from our investor VStep, we use those data to build a simulation model. And we use that simulation model to test the algorithms necessary for a ship to sail unmanned. We can run thousands of scenarios with this before we test an algorithm in practice. Naturally, there can’t be any risk to safety,’ Gerard Kruisheer explains. The co-founder of Captain AI says that automated shipping is a considerably more difficult proposition than, for example, driverless cars. ‘If you step on the brake in your car, you know exactly when it will stop. That’s not the case with a vessel. We need more complex algorithms.’

Safety is one of the reasons why the Port Authority is gathering and providing the data for automated sailing. ‘Research into automated sailing is being conducted at other locations too, but then without cooperation with port authorities or other institutions. This leads to black box solutions, which will never work. After all, how can we guarantee that the algorithms in that black box are safe?’ Harmen van Dorsser, programme manager of Rotterdam Port Authority, wonders out loud. ‘And apart from that, autonomous sailing is also attractive for the Port Authority itself. Think of remote-controlled fire extinguishing, or inspection of quays with driverless vehicles.’

Dilemma with sustainability

In addition to digitisation, sustainability is another spearhead of the innovation programme. In the case of the Rotterdam port, this in fact means a transition to other sources of energy. ‘The port is 60% dependent on fossil fuels. We’re not just talking about shipping and road transport here, but also about the chemical and oil industries in the port,’ says Peter Mollema, strategic advisor of the Rotterdam Port Authority. ‘About 7% of global CO2 emissions are related to freight transport. Shipping accounts for almost 3% - as much as the emissions from the whole of Germany.’

During Innovation Expo 2018, Mollema chaired a workshop on making shipping CO2-free. ‘CO emissions from shipping are expected to grow by between 50 and 250%. If we don’t do anything, the share of global emissions will soon be 17%. So we have to take action now,’ Mollema says. What can sea ports do? That is the key question, which leads to a dilemma. ‘Should we turn away severely contaminating ships? That’s pretty complicated. If we set more stringent requirements, that could weaken our competitive position. On the other hand, if we crank up innovation faster, we can build up a lead on the competition.’

Working together

Several dozen participants in the workshop brainstormed on potential measures. One thing seems to be clear: Rotterdam would do best to work with the other ports. Mollema shares that conclusion. ‘We can’t do this alone. We have agreed to work together with Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, Long Beach, Los Angeles and Vancouver. Many other ports have since said that they wish to join in. We’re also talking with ports in China, such as Shanghai.’

Mollema named a number of measures. For example, Rotterdam Port Authority is investing in renewable energy and LED lighting in the port and uses its influence to reach agreements as part of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). The port is working to make its operations more efficient and is investigating possibilities for supplying vessels with green power, so that they can switch off their generators. Mollema adds: ‘With operational measures alone, we will only achieve half of the necessary CO2 reduction. We also have to work for the use of alternative fuels. We now have the regulations and infrastructure for LNG in order, which also frees the way for BioLNG. But we are also looking at other biofuels, synthetic fuels and hydrogen.’