Powering port transformation with 5G

Neill Young, business development director and verticals lead at Blu Wireless, explains the importance of future-proofing ports with 5G connectivity.

The digital transformation of the ports and maritime sector is a complex evolution, involving everything from vessel communications to autonomous cranes and the tracking of goods via the Internet of Things.

There are numerous benefits associated with digital transformation, from operational efficiency to onsite security, and the money-and-time-saving potential of incorporating smart or autonomous systems into modern ports.

To power digital transformation in this demanding environment, the right network or combination of networks is needed, and port authorities are looking to reap the benefits of 5G to scale their operations to deliver the best possible service.

In search of a scalable and secure network in a complex environment

Port operators need to track and communicate with hundreds of carriers and vessels, as well as thousands of employees, in complex environments. They are tasked with tracking multiple data points for containers carrying tens of thousands of goods, including their location, temperature, and status.

These critical activities are taking place within several square kilometres, where metal objects, radiofrequency-emitting devices and a number of operations teams exist. For all these activities and teams to operate smoothly, a robust and secure network is needed.

Authorities might consider traditional means, such as fibre or public networks, as their first option. However, digging up areas of the port to lay fibre cables would be expensive and hugely disruptive to operations.

Another consideration is that public mobile networks might not meet the ports’ privacy and network control requirements, nor provide a sufficiently strong or reliable enough signal, so capacity is likely to be saturated.

To tackle these challenges and be prepared for more complex use cases that enable digital transformation, the best approach is a blend of different networks.

mmWave technology 

mmWave technology is flexible, easy to deploy and can use existing infrastructure where possible, making it particularly suitable for complex environments with high capacity and high-reliability needs.

mmWave can transform the way ports work by providing multi-gigabit connectivity to support everything from connected sensors to small tools to large machinery, helping to deliver real-time insights, massive data offload and automation. This is ideal for catapulting operations to a 5G status and capability.

mmWave does not require complex, power-hungry or expensive core network infrastructure either, making it easier for port operators to scale their network when necessary.

Furthermore, implementing mmWave in a private network environment allows a high level of privacy and security, giving port organisations full control over their networks.

There are three specific use cases where mmWave capabilities bring superior connectivity and a host of other benefits into fruition for ports.

Massive data upload

A significant amount of data is generated by vessels as they complete long journeys and return to the port to unload containers. As a ship docks at the port, the crew wants to upload its data all in one go so the port operators are informed immediately what the ship is carrying and what needs to be actioned.

Transferring data on this scale would quickly saturate the bandwidth on existing mobile networks, but mmWave technology allows massive volumes of data to be transmitted, uploaded and downloaded, without impacting the rest of the network.

Quay crane automation and remote control of vessels 

Quay crane automation reduces the cost per handled container and is beneficial as automated work reduces human error and allows operators to control and supervise a large volume of equipment from the safety of the control room.

High-capacity and secure 5G connectivity enables this transfer of data without interference and allows information to be shared in real time to support critical decision making.

A similar use case which is currently being trialled is related to autonomous vessels. These tests are facilitating the sharing of a vessel’s location, course and speed data with remote teams.

Equipped with sensors and high-definition cameras, autonomous vessels are monitoring the water, the quay and other ships with 360˚ cameras, creating a situational awareness to increase efficiency and enhance safety.

To facilitate automatic steering, collision avoidance, anti-sway, and to guarantee safety, real-time data transmission to the control centre is required, all enabled by 5G connectivity.

mmWave is set to complement GPS, which is currently used to track vessel position in ports, and interconnect sensors and technologies, thus enabling real-time transmission of vast amounts of data.

As a result, 5G mmWave is set to accelerate decision-making and problem-solving based on real-time data and insights, and enable predictive planning so port operations can be streamlined and further optimised in the future.


At any one time, thousands of interactions between people, vessels and high-tech equipment will all be happening simultaneously.

This includes data upload, communication between teams and the tracking of ships, cranes and assets. Therefore, seamless wireless cell sites and mobile backhaul connections are imperative.

Current backhaul, designed for previous generations of mobile technology, is likely to struggle to meet the capacity, availability, latency, and cost-efficiency requirements, and so new innovation is required.

One solution to overcoming backhaul bandwidth challenges is to move higher up the spectrum into mmWave bands – the 14GHz available between 57GHz and 71GHz are particularly well suited.

Using mmWave to backhaul the data across the site to the control centre is cost-effective and efficient, giving ports the flexibility needed to adapt to a dynamic environment.

Looking ahead 

5G mmWave gives port operators the flexible, highly scalable, secure and cost-efficient multi-gigabit connectivity needed to power their digital transformation roadmap.

Such a network set up will supercharge equipment and future-proof ports, as they look to adopt new and emerging data-intensive technology and applications in the form of drones, VR and augmented reality to further improve and streamline operations.