Port Insight: follow barges online

05 February 2019
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Port Insight started on 20 November: the joint venture of the Port of Rotterdam Authority with TWTG, a progressive player in the development of I-IoT solutions (industrial internet of things). Port Insight is developing various services with the first achievement being the new service with which barges can be tracked across a large part of Europe. The service will be operational for the first clients in early 2019. ‘Port Insight will have a lot of impact on the sector and will contribute to being a smart port’.

Heatmap from Waalhaven

The port is full of them: steel barges in which bulk goods such as ores, grain or sand are transported via rivers to the hinterland. A barge can be up to 100 metres long is constructed entirely from steel. Such a barge is pushed by another vessel, the pusher, which is why the barge doesn’t have its own engine. A pusher can push up to six barges at a time.

Which barges are berthed where and for how long is monitored manually by the barge operators. ‘It’s a process that involves a lot of paperwork’, explained Vincent Campfens, Business Consultant from the Digital & Information Technology department at the Port Authority. Vincent is mainly involved in the application of sensor technology and data communications in the port area.

‘There are so many barges in the port, we don’t actually know which barges are where and how many there are. The operators and users often have to make lots of calls to chase these up. And port dues are mandatory for a barge. If the barge operator doesn’t have an annual season ticket, it is supposed to send a monthly overview of all barge movements. The Port of Rotterdam Authority uses this to send an invoice to the barge operator. It’s a system that involves considerable administration and is prone to error. The Harbour Master's Division also needs to monitor barge safety and enforce safety regulations. In short, keeping on top of all this is a rather time-consuming challenge for the Port Authority and operators.’

Developers within the Port Authority decided that this needed to be smarter, more transparent and easier. Vincent: ‘Ten years ago tracking parcels we’d posted was quite difficult, but using an app for this is now simply the norm. We wanted to make barges available in the digital world.’


The team of developers started work and held many discussions with barge operators. Matthijs Tromp, Project Developer and Team Leader: ‘We obtained so many comments varying from “we’ve already tried that but it didn’t work, tracking and tracing throughout Europe isn’t going to happen and the batteries will only last a year”. In the end, together with the Port Authority and a few enthusiastic operators, we were able to establish a successful pilot in partnership with technology company SODAQ. We’ve used this to demonstrate the operation of the entire technical chain and to tackle initial objections.’

The team then started searching for a good partner to establish the service. Vincent: ‘The transponder and technology had to meet quite a number of requirements. Barges are not handled with great care and they’re always in the water. So the equipment needed to be able to take a few knocks. The built-in technology also had to be secure and reliable and provide a location with 10-metre accuracy. You also don’t want to have to replace the battery every year; it needs to last 5 years. And it must be possible to carry out remote updates, so that you’re ready for the future. We wanted to make things easy for users. Apart from the physical product, the service also comprises online dashboards, links with external systems and, of course, a service desk for users. This means clients are always guaranteed that the information they use to design work processes is correct and reliable.’

Improved operation

The Port Authority found a partner for this in TWTG, an innovative company that often uses Internet of Things technology. IoT is a network of physical objects, such as cars, machines and equipment with sensors that makes connections with the internet to exchange data. Goran Gavric, Director of TWTG: ‘For instance, take your smartphone; this works in different ways, via Wi-Fi, the mobile network or Bluetooth. You should view IoT in the same way. We have created a complete technical solution for Port Insight: the transponder with the track and trace function and the software platform. Users can see where vessels are on this platform. They can use the dashboard for easy arrangements of declarations for port dues and for planning. We listened really well to users during the development. We’ve made the transponder technology suitable now for solutions that we want to introduce in the future. This includes an availability overview for berths, similar to the system you often see for parking spaces in a city or car park. Or that an operator gives the cargo owner or the receiving client a track and trace code, as now happens with mailed parcels.’

And, of course, barges don’t only sail in the Rotterdam region. Goran: ‘We aim to offer the product to other ports and other countries too. That’s why the Port of Rotterdam Authority is working with TWTG under the name Port Insight to offer this service throughout the market, so that other parties can also benefit. Port Insight will ensure that the sector works better and more efficiently. As Rotterdam company, we’re really proud that we’re doing this with the Port Authority.’

Culture switch

Olga Verburg is Data Engineering Team Leader at the Port of Rotterdam Authority and is involved in the development. ‘Port Insight is a fantastic example of how you can use relatively simple solutions to revamp a sector. The world of barges is rather conservative; these are family companies and deals are often still made in the pub. It’s a world that isn’t used to changes. The most amazing thing about this journey is the culture switch, from initially sceptical operators to operators who now can’t wait until the system arrives. At the same time, the Port of Rotterdam is involved with solutions for large problems and wide-ranging themes such as the energy transition, but this is not always measurable. What is great about Port Insight is that it is data driven and resolves problems in a concrete way, namely making the barges visible digitally. ‘Port Insight will have a tremendous impact on the sector. This also connects with the Port of Rotterdam’s ambition to be an innovation leader.’

Vincent concluded: ‘Soon people will be able to see how the berths are used and whether there are capacity problems. But the Port Authority will also be able to offer more flexible services, such as having an operator pay per hour instead of per week. I can talk about if for hours, the advantages sound so logical that you wonder why it wasn’t available earlier!’