What are smart ports, and how can they help during the COVID-19 pandemic?

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Seaports are critical when it comes to global trade, e-commerce, and supply chains. In fact, it is said that more than 11 billion tons of goods were transported by sea in 2019.

This is equivalent to more than 80 percent of the total global trade. Seaports are thus the lifelines for many countries and are very important for many economic activities.

Global e-commerce, which uses the latest online platforms, still relies on seaports for the actual delivery of goods.

The usual scenario is this: When a cargo ship arrives at its destination, its cargo is offloaded and logistics companies transport these items outside the port and into warehouses for distribution, packing, labeling, etc., and then delivered to the customer’s doorsteps.

The process is very clear-cut: Ships arrive, drop their cargoes, leave, and repeat.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted seaport operations across the globe. Congestion in ports became one of the top concerns because governments started imposing restrictions on mobility, particularly in cities. Logistics have been adversely affected, because of the limitations.

One example is Manila’s port. It is said that a huge number of containers were stacked in Manila’s port, which caused yard utilization to reach a high of 98 percent in 2020, compared to the average of 60 percent in the previous years. Simply put, volumes and volumes of goods have to stay in the port because distributions have been delayed.

And how are countries addressing these concerns? Enter ‘smart ports.’

What is a smart port?

‘Smart ports’ are not really new, as many countries have some form of automation way before COVID-19.

Today’s smart port uses the latest automation and information technology (IT) solutions to plan, manage, and troubleshoot port operations. 

These port operations include vessel and truck traffic management, container stacking management, warehousing, and transshipments, among others.

Smart ports use data extensively. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are used for critical information such as determining thresholds in the operations of ports. 

Data, such as the amount of loaded/unloaded cargo, and the duration of the cargo in storage, is processed and the information is relayed to port operators for action. Smart ports also “alert” or notify port operators if certain thresholds are breached.

One of the advantages of using a smart port is that a port can still function properly even if there is a shortage of manpower. Smart ports are usually very connected, allowing port operators to have remote access to operations.

The use of a global positioning system (GPS) allows operators to monitor vessel tracking and 5G communications technologies allow for remote management of many port operations in real-time.

Smart ports in Asia and the world

In Asia, Singapore is one of the leaders when it comes to smart ports. The country is extensively using 5G to enable the exchange of data between port terminals. Real-time exchange of information means processes are faster, and bottlenecks are identified. Thus, port congestion is minimized.

It helps that Singapore have a strong partnership with telecom companies on 5G and “internet-of-things” to allow the country to accelerate its smart port development. 

The same is also true in Korea, particularly in the Busan Port, where 5G and “internet-of-things” are extensively used.

However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic basically compelled many countries to accelerate their smart ports to adjust.

Today, there are said to be 48 automated ports across the globe, and many more are being developed in response to the changing times. One thing is certain: smart ports remain critical to global e-commerce and are here to stay.

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