A 5G-powered supply chain isn’t about faster streaming

From the moment 5G became a technology buzzword, the promises of what the newest wireless networks will bring have been lofty. It wasn’t just faster internet: 5G also would deliver a wondrous future. 

Fancy a better virtual reality headset? No problem! Longing for a self-driving car? You’ll get it!

It’s compelling stuff, sure, even if the only 5G future many people want is streaming at the speed of light. But 5G is about much more than faster connections and the hype of new shiny objects. It also has the potential to change entire industries in the background, including the one that underpins the global economy and brings us almost everything we buy

Ports and ocean shipping companies are using 5G’s speeds and low latency (the lag time between a device pinging the network and getting a response) to be more efficient, automated and secure. It’s an essential step for these linchpins of the global supply chain, and when coupled with machine learning, smarter data sharing and moves to cut emissions, the goal of a smarter, greener port may be on the horizon.

Jan Diekmann, a technical account manager for business development with Ericsson, told us that the physical environment of a port makes it an optimal place to use 5G. The cellular networks can better cover a larger, denser area than Wi-Fi and you don’t have to drill fibre into the concrete that covers most of a port’s land.

“It’s hard with other technologies to cover an area like a big terminal or even the port completely,” he said. “[5G] is a big value for an environment that’s so spread out like a port, but that’s also dense in terms of buildings.”

Going private 

Ericsson’s 5G solution for ports starts with a private 5G network that covers the wharves, cargo storage areas, roads and even adjacent waterways. Think of it like a normal cellular network you could use with a 5G-capable device, but one that covers a limited area and isn’t shared with the public. 

Adam Schipper, Ericsson’s director for ports, transportation and logistics calls it a network in a box. “You’re able to manage it and support it yourself. It’s for your purposes and for your use cases, and you have total control.”

In 2020, Ericsson established its first testbed for a private 5G network when it partnered with the Port of Livorno. Then earlier this year it supplied the equipment for a private 5G network powered by Verizon at the Port of Virginia, which covers the US cities of Norfolk, Newport News and Portsmouth.

“We’re finding that the foundation of a smart port is private networks,” Schipper said. “Then everything else runs on top of that private network.”

Schipper said private networks for more ports around the world are in the works. But no matter where they are, there’s tonnes of potential.

Real-time tracking

One possibility may sound a bit mundane, but it’s critical to a port’s entire business. With sensors and 5G-connected tracking devices, ports can know where a container is at any time, what’s inside and where it needs to go.

“The 5G solutions that help most, after getting past basic connectivity, is just active condition monitoring and using sensors to be able to know where everything is in real-time,” Schipper said. ”A real-time view is number one.”

Other and perhaps more exciting 5G-enabled solutions include automated port vehicles, remote-controlled cranes, push-to-talk communication for port workers, improved data collection and analysis and mixed reality devices for remote inspections. Diekmann said port safety, security, and perimeter control could also get a boost.

“It’s hard to deploy a camera somewhere because you need power and a data cable,” he said. “Here 5G really gives you the flexibility to deploy cameras for different purposes.”

5G onboard

With Europe’s second largest port, Antwerp was a logical place for Orange to initiate both a 5G private network in 2019 and later a 5G lab to test concepts like an automated train and a robotic arm controlled by smart glasses. The company has also pushed 5G into the ports in Le Havre and Barcelona.

“[5G] will help improve their competitiveness, efficiency and flexibility,” claimed now-former Orange Chairman and CEO Stéphane Richard in a statement when the Le Havre network launched. “It will also be a powerful lever for economic recovery and energy transition.”

Belgian ship management company Seafar is using Antwerp’s 5G network to deploy ships with smaller crews and completely unmanned vessels that are controlled remotely using VR. And the port itself is flying inspection drones and utilising 5G to connect tugboats as they’re guiding a ship into a berth. 

“When you have two tugboats with a really big vessel in between, one tugboat doesn’t see what the other is doing,” said Wouter Faes, the port’s team leader of Operations, in a 2021 Orange YouTube video showcasing the tugs. “5G could help us send data in a reliable, fast manner to the other boat.”

5G private networks in ships

Private networks powered by 5G satellites could also be added on oceangoing ships to improve ship-to-shore communications and evaluate vessel performance. And just as they would be used on land, connected devices could help crews monitor cargo (no small feat when the largest ships can carry as many as 20,000 containers).

“A container ship is a dense environment and can be well-served by a 5G private network that leverages satellite connectivity and potentially also mesh networks to extend connectivity to the most remote recesses,” wrote Steve Harris on Orange’s corporate blog.

In the longer term, 5G advocates are suggesting it could even power automated tugs and pilot boats. But regardless of whether those projections happen, Diekmann said that better-connecting port workers is the best place for 5G to start.

“It can connect workers, knowing where they are at any time, while avoiding hazardous situations and supplying them with information, not through a walkie-talkie but via more modern means like virtual glasses or tablets… That’s where mobile networks come into play.”

Kent German
Kent German

Kent German is an award-winning journalist who spent almost two decades at CNET as a senior editor. Kent is based in San Francisco but covers technology all around the world.