The advent of Automated Vehicles (AV) is about to revolutionise the waterside and landside operations at container terminals around the world. The concept is nothing new as Hutchison Ports ECT Rotterdam developed the first automated terminal with Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) since 1993.
“Container terminals are well suited for automation characterised by large volumes of goods in repetitive flows with relatively short distances. Moreover, port terminals are already well underway in implementing automated solutions that will help drive productivity and safety,” according to Mikael Karlsson, Vice President, Autonomous Solutions for Volvo Trucks.
In the last five years advances in technology have resulted in the development of reliable positioning, navigation and perception systems for unmanned vehicles and also wireless communication.
At Hutchison Ports, plans are in place to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) into the automated vehicle system.
“With well-planned terminal layout and installing positional sensors built-in to the ground, AGV operation works productively in a green field terminal,” said Herman Chiu, General Manager- Terminal Development, Group Operations at Hutchison Ports.
“Thanks to the use of AI, we are now able to navigate the terminal without those positional sensors. Next year we will see our newly built terminal in Sweden deploy automated straddle carriers that make use of AI and Global Positioning System (GPS), giving us the added flexibility for operations and generate cost savings from installing sensors built-in to the terminal.”
As one of Hutchison Ports key strategies the aim is to achieve higher operational efficiency with the use of technology and innovation. For this, different kinds of automated vehicles have long been on the radar, according to Chiu.
For Volvo Trucks a similar line of thinking evolved into the Vera project.
“A few years ago, a small group of colleagues including designers; business and technical experts at Volvo Trucks came together, united by a belief that the transport industry needed a shake-up. It needed solutions that were more efficient, more cost-effective and more sustainable, but as the small team saw it, this would only be possible by daring to think differently,” said Karlsson.
By taking the need to reduce customers’ costs as the starting point, the team explored the possibilities offered by automation, connectivity and electro mobility and soon devised the concept for Vera; an autonomous, fully electric vehicle that could integrate into more complex logistics systems.
“About two years ago, we formulated a strategic roadmap for its business implementation of autonomous truck (AT) at our terminals, which can be a game-changer,” said Chiu.
“Last year, we partnered with a vendor to carry out a proof-of-concept testing in one of our terminals. Since then, we have entered into the next stage using autonomous truck (AT) into live operations for one of our terminals next year.”
So why have we waited nearly three decades for automated vehicles to go the next level?
“The main difference is the level of technology with more sensors and computing power that makes it possible to operate the system in a more flexible way,” said Karlsson.
“Autonomous solutions are about implementing a full transport system consisting of a control tower, service and maintenance, AVs and charging stations,” he added.
“The prime function of AV (including AGV, Auto Straddle and AT) is to transport containers between quay and yard sides. In our brownfield terminals operating with Rubber-Tyred Gantry Crane (RTGC) and terminal tractors, we have embarked on an automation and modernisation roadmap,” said Chiu.
“With the successful implementation of remote control and automated RTGCs in one of our terminals, we are moving towards a fully automated RTGC terminal conversion.”
“The next step would be to replace internal tractors with AT in the near future. We foresee significant cost efficiency in terms of operating costs. By integrating with the group’s proprietary Terminal Operating System, nGen, which controls the entire scope of terminal operations, enabled by powerful algorithms and AI we can maximize the utilisation of our fleet of AT with optimal routing built into the fleet management system.”
Autonomous Trucks are part of the whole system put in place to automate terminal operations. A new configuration has to be developed to manage traffic patterns and rules, signage and signalling, control of external trucks, container crane interaction with AT as well as a workflow re-design. This is the framework needed to make AT work effectively.
“The communication and integration of all the above will be the major challenges. Another critical issue is the education of other road users, mainly truck drivers, to ensure a safe working environment,” said Chiu.
Consistency and predictability are two important benefits of terminal automation. With automated vehicles, we can put a more intelligent planning module into our system that will further enhance quayside productivity. The job nature of operations staff will shift towards a supervisory role and handling exception situations.
Environmental friendliness and energy efficiency are among the top priorities in the Hutchison Ports roadmap. Diesel-powered RTGCs and AGVs were converted into hybrid or electric powered a decade ago. At new terminals electric powered AT will be targeted for deployment from day one of operations.
“The logistics industry is one of the first to embrace this new technology. Some ports have carried out proof-of-concept trials, but to put it in large-scale live operations, we expect AT to be running around at ports next year,” said Chiu.
“For a widespread use of AT, it could be a matter of years. Don’t be surprised if you see more AT driving inside terminals than on the public road in the next few years.”
Volvo Trucks has revealed that its autonomous vehicle Vera has been given a ‘first assignment’, forming part of an integrated solution to distribute goods around the world. The electric and connected solution, which was first unveiled in 2018, will be utilised as part of a new collaboration between Volvo Trucks and logistics service provider Det Forenede Dampskibs-Selskab (DFDS) operating at Gothenburg Port in Sweden.
Vera, a system designed for repetitive assignments in logistics centres, factories and ports, is well suited to travelling short distances and moving large volumes of goods with a high level of precision.
Ultimately, Volvo Trucks aims to build a connected system consisting of several Vera vehicles monitored by a control tower, developing an efficient and sustainable supply chain that is responsive and flexible to changes in demand.