If you’re like me and my family, you get pretty excited when that package arrives at the door. But, for most of those packages and their contents, it’s been a long, crowded journey.

The global shipping industry itself is huge – $8.7B in 2019 and projected to grow to $12B+ by 2026. And that number doesn’t include the goods they ship. Amazon alone sold $164 billion worth of items on its website this year. By volume, 90% of the world’s trade goods are transported by sea. There are around 53,000 ships in the world’s merchant fleet, 5,000 of which are container ships, and the largest of those carries more than 20,000 containers. In the US alone, there are there are approximately 360 public and private-owned commercial sea, lake and river ports that maintain the shore-side facilities for the transfer of cargo between ships, barges, trucks and railroads. You get the picture.

All those goods transported by sea make their way to a port where they take the next step on their journey. There’s a lot of complexity behind that process. Have you ever thought about what happens when those huge ships come into port?

To start with, cargo terminals are very complex and dangerous environments. Huge container ships come to port with thousands of containers loaded with goods that need to get unloaded. Cranes unload and load immense container ships. Those containers are moved into stacks via a variety of vehicles that get loaded onto trucks and trains. These “multi-model” ports handle every possible type of transport except an airplane.


Being able to coordinate all of that is a huge challenge – both in scale and complexity. It’s a challenge that is ideal for automation.

The Path to Digital

The largest area that ports are digitizing is their Terminal Operating Systems (TOS). TOS systems track all assets at the port, regardless of who is the owner. Because at ports, many different parties are involved. One firm owns and operates the physical port – the port authority. And then there’s the shipping firm, the transport firm, etc. Coordinating across those entities with paper tickets is incredibly time consuming and layered with errors.

With a good TOS in place, the port authority can know what each crane or truck is doing, what ship is coming in, and if a train is arriving with goods. And they can use automated dispatch and timed unloading/loading to deliver operational efficiency across the board.

Moving to Remote Operations

Once you know what the assets are, where they are, and how they are moving, you can move people out of harms’ way with remote operations to improve efficiency and safety. Yard vehicles operate in these outdoor environments with horrible weather and dangerous working conditions where each year lives are lost. The faster the containers move safely off and on ships out of the stacks, the greater the operational efficiency and overall profits for all companies involved.

Let’s take at the complexity of those huge cranes. We’ve all seen the movies with chase scenes where action heroes are in a gun fight running amongst the containers. But in the real world, the real dangers are the equipment – like the ship-to-shore cranes that move up and down the berth to get those containers off the huge cargo ships.

Those cranes are 10-15 stories tall. Just pause to think about how tall that is. American football field goal posts are 35 feet tall – so those cranes are 3-4 goal posts tall! Even more surprising perhaps is that a crane operator must climb stairs to the top of that crane. Up at the start of the shift. Down when they need to take a break. And then back up again. When they are in the operations room, they’ve got dozens of cameras to help guide them in unloading and loading the vessels. Outside of the obvious dangers, they also experience high levels of fatigue from this environment.

But, if you can add remote operations to this scenario and put the operator on the ground, you’ve changed everything. The operator is in a safe environment. They can take breaks. They don’t waste time climbing up and down dangerous stairs. Remote operations not only deliver efficiencies, but in harsh settings like ports – it saves lives.

There are significant hurdles for those remote operations to be successful. Think of all the obstacles in that port. Those stacks of containers are like metal buildings that are often six containers high with as many side by side. It’s like a metal city which translates into a horrible environment for connectivity. Remote operations require dozens of high-resolution video feeds and that needs a high bandwidth network. Traditional RF and cellular struggle to handle the strength and reliability. That’s why super strength wireless and highly reliable networks are the underpinnings of all remote operations.

Delivering Round-the-Clock Ports with Autonomous Operations

Moving to autonomous operations transforms ports across many different vectors. With autonomous operations, 24×7 ports can become a reality – enabling the entire shipping ecosystem to operate at higher levels of efficiency and be able to handle the inevitable constant changes that come from weather, production changes, or even public health crises.

Automation also helps increase safety across the boards – from the massive Rubber Tired Gantry (RTG) crane systems and rail-mounted gantry (RMG) cranes through auto shuttle carriers and automated guided vehicles (AGV). Every time automation gets added to the process, the safety of workers is improved.

In addition to safety and efficiency, automation translates into increased profitability. Ports and terminal want to accept bigger and bigger ships. The more autonomous the operations, the bigger the ship they can bring in safely – from both an employee and physical plant perspective.

When those large ships come to dock, they throw huge tie lines to short. Tides, waves, and wind take their toll on the ship that then bashes into and pulls on the physical infrastructure. It doesn’t take long for jetty walls to disintegrate into the ocean.

Automation changes the entire equation. Sensors on the ocean walls can provide insights as to which ship is causing what kind of damage. This results in benefits for autonomous vessels that control positioning thrusters, keeping a safe and consistent distance from the wall. It’s a win-win situation where port operators get more profits from larger ships and can lower the cost for autonomous ships to dock.

Automation in Action

How are companies like Cisco solving for these complexities? Those huge cranes we spoke about earlier are essential to ports and historically very challenging to automate. Much of the world’s RTG fleet is diesel-powered with limited options for automating RTGs given the fact that running cables to them is costly and often unpractical.

To solve this challenge, Cisco Fluidmesh partnered with Konecranes to solve the connectivity challenge and deliver a world-first 100% wireless Automated Rubber Tired Gantry (ARTG) crane system. Now container terminal operators can roll out remote control and automation to RTGs in the container yard without running fiber or cable spools, with substantial savings in cost and time.

Cisco’s wireless MPLS-based technology has been proven in many vehicle automation systems around the world where 802.11 Wi-Fi or LTE haven’t been able to deliver. The focus on seamless roaming, extremely low latency, and high throughput wireless networks delivers the reliability and security that operators need to trust these critical systems to automation.

Take for example one of our customers – the Port of Malta. Malta Freeport is a premier trans-shipment hub, having successfully operated for over 30 years as a vital part of the Mediterranean containerization market. Knowing the value of automation for safety and efficiency, a remarkable evolution is taking place at Malta Freeport Terminals. Cisco Fluidmesh wireless connectivity is being used to seamlessly integrate all present and future movable assets, such as Quayside cranes, RTGs and yard equipment, to create a zero-packet loss, low-latency roaming wireless backbone.

“Originally, we intended to use the Fluidmesh system only on the Quayside cranes. However, we later discovered that it also offers great potential on our RTGs fleet as well,” noted Malta Freeport Terminals Head of IT Jesmond Baldacchino. “It complements our IoT and big data projects currently being undertaken. With this system, we are also in a position to gain full wireless coverage in areas which were previously challenging.”  Watch the full story here.

The Foundation for Autonomous Operations? A Secure and Reliable Network

The secret power behind autonomous operations? Cisco’s secure and reliable network for IoT that powers the entire system and connects everything – device to vehicle to data to Cloud – making sure your autonomous operations have the right data to make the right decision at the right time. Autonomous operations rely on that perishable data at the edge that is only valuable at that moment.

Likewise, autonomous operations are only successful if the entire system is secure. If the network were to be hacked, perpetrators could take over the autonomous operations. Imagine the crane dropping the cargo. Or the AGV being rerouted to follow the wrong path causing an accident. You have to trust your network to trust your business to autonomous operations.

Get Started Today on Your Path to Automation


Vikas Butaney

SVP / GM, Cisco Networking

SD-WAN, Multicloud, and Industrial IoT