Automation Could Aid Port Operations During Pandemic

Credit: Eagle Rail
Eagle Rail's overhead crane transfer system concept

Published Apr 9, 2020 6:02 PM by Harry Valentine

The impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is occurring both locally and internationally, affecting maritime and airline operations. Despite closure of international borders to people traffic, movement of goods such as food and medical supplies across such borders remains essential. The virus encourages greater use of the telecommunications media to allow more people to work from remote locations and also encourages greater use of autonomous computer control in the transportation sector.


The pandemic occurs at a time when significant progress has been made in the area of autonomous control of land, air and ocean going vehicles. Advanced telecommunications technology allows a greater portion of the workforce to work from home offices and remote work stations. At some ports, such technology allows crane operators to work from remotely located play stations while automated cranes can transfer containers at ports with minimal worker control, or with a worker directing a computer. First developed for scale model toys, advancing telecommunications can allow for remote control of vessels at port areas.

While international travelers may initially have carried the virus to overseas locations, lockdown of populations and isolation at home are viewed as methods for minimizing virus transmission within each community. Despite isolation lockdowns, a portion of the population includes essential workers who need to travel to places of employment to provide services that keep communities functional. People at the forefront of automation are able to work from home to collaborate with colleagues in the development of future autonomous transportation technologies that include transportation operations that directly and indirectly involve maritime ports and maritime vehicles.

Remote Piloting

Prior to arrival at port and during departure from port, local boat pilots who have keen knowledge of local sailing conditions board vessels to assure safe pilotage to and from quayside. The danger of boat pilots becoming infected with the virus now focuses attention on autonomous pilotage and on remote pilotage, where a local pilot stationed at a shore-based workstation can remotely guide a vessel arriving at or departing from port. One possibility could involve a port-based drone that would fly to a landing pad located above a ship’s control bridge.

When secured to the bridge, it would plug itself into the ship’s navigation system. A series of strategically placed cameras would provide shore-based pilots with a view from the ship’s bridge, as if the pilot were actually aboard ship. Strategically placed movable lasers that adjust aim at distant lenses could transmit information through the atmosphere. Such “line-of-sight” transmission between ship and shore would greatly reduce the potential for outsiders to access ship navigation control. Within a port area, seawater could transmit certain frequencies of sonar signals between ship and shore to facilitate exchange of navigation information.

Alternative Telecommunications

Over the centuries, many forms of sight-based and sound-based methods of telecommunications evolved in both the natural and human world. Certain low-frequency sound waves including at sub-audible level to people can propagate for distances of 20 miles through the atmosphere from point of origin. Transmitting the sound from inside a reflective cone enhances distance transmission. Coordinating a pair of such frequencies allows for use of either Morse code or binary code to transmit information. Seawater can carry certain sound frequencies for up to 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) at greater speed than sound transmission through air.  

Underwater sound detection technology was developed during the early 20th century and could find new application during the 21st century when used with underwater sound transmission technology, allowing communication between port and offshore vessels. Such technology could direct the operation of underwater drones such as guiding large vessels sailing through narrow channels, assisted by additional communication between drone and ship navigation systems. The combination of submerged drone using underwater transmission and airborne drone using atmospheric transmission to communicate with ship navigation systems could further assist autonomous ship navigation through restricted surroundings.

Expanded Port Automation

The pandemic has placed renewed emphasis on automated port operations with transfer of containers involving the combination of automated cranes, automated rubber tire port vehicles and automated port railway operations. While railway operations have traditionally involved ground level railway tracks, a recent innovation in overhead railway technology offers potential to further streamline automated port operations. The close proximity between several pairs of international container ports would allow automated barge operation on such links as Guangzhou – Shenzhen, Shenzhen – Hong Kong, Malaysia Tanjun Pelepas – Singapore Mega-Port Tuas and container terminals in the Newark – New York City area.

The traffic situation in the vicinity of Port of Newark and New York container terminals encourages consideration of a future overhead railway container transfer system linking container terminals and railway intermodal terminals, all of which are located in close proximity to each other. Considerable progress has already been made internationally in autonomous port operations. The automation trend is expected to continue and expand in scope into the future. One American developer of autonomous trucks has suggested that they could have long-distance vehicles capable of carrying containers operational by late in 2021 or early in 2022.  


Despite the present pandemic and resulting lockdowns of entire populations in major cities internationally, there is remains a need for various types of trade to move internationally. Advances in telecommunications and computer technology provides a platform for autonomous operations at ports, including future movement of ships, transfer of cargo between ship and terminal, also between ship and various modes of land based transportation. Drones based at ports or based on transportation vehicles will likely contribute for future transportation operations, such as surveying the territory ahead so as to optimize the efficient movement of transportation vehicles.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.