Ports tackle profitability challenges through robotics, driverless vehicles and drones

14 December 2015

Security drones, driverless trucks and remote-controlled cranes were among the port technologies on show at DP World's exhibition at the UAE's first Innovation Week.

The Dubai-based port operator showed how at Rotterdam World Gateway, 59 driverless electric trucks, known as automated guided vehicles, are boosting efficiency.

Remote-controlled quay cranes at the Jebel Ali Port in Dubai allow crane operators to work from the control centre – and will result in the recruitment of more women operators, DP World said. According to the firm 30 female crane operators have been recruited at Jebel Ali.

The company said automating its processes and machinery across its operations worldwide had led to it reducing its carbon footprint by almost 25 per cent.

It also said it had introduced security drones at ports such as Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa and Jebel Ali, increasing video coverage of areas not in view of fixed camera networks.

In an accompanying report on the role of IT in the port and logistics sector, DP World said technical innovation would become more important as port operators sought to maintain profitability in the face of slowing global trade.

The value of global merchandise trade shrank in the first six months of 2015 by more than 13 per cent year-on-year.

“As ports and logistics firms battle to protect and gain market share, the race to find cost savings and efficiency gains will become even more pronounced,” said the report.

It predicted robotics and automation, such as automated stacking cranes, would become increasingly common, even though this technology can cost up to half a billion dollars to implement in a large port.

The use of such automation makes particular sense in ports handling “megaships”, according to the report. There are now more than 120 such container ships in operation.

“As the cost of labour increases and the cost of technology decreases, companies are fast approaching a point where investments in robotics are becoming cost-effective,” said DP World.

It predicted robot vehicles “will have significant implications for ports and logistics firms, both in terms of practical operations and commercial threats and opportunities”.

The report added that ports needed to be ready to face competition from driverless road vehicles and drone planes, noting that DHL is already using beyond-line-of-sight drones to deliver medicine to Juist, a German island.

The report said the use of drone ships would be the robot vehicle technology that would be most beneficial for ports, though it did not forsee such ships being introduced this decade.

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