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8 September 2020

Waterways start joining railways and roads in 5G digitization

Inland waterways attract less media attention than roads and railways when it comes to digitization and deployment of advanced communications infrastructure, but the benefits can be just as profound for commercial users at least.

That is Vodafone’s view after activating the first 180 5G antennas at 64 locations along German federal waterways as part of a nationwide 5G deployment. The project should be completed within 12 months when the network will extend to 300 locations and 1000 antennas. This spans 7,476 kilometers of inland waterways, 75% of which are rivers and 25% canals, along with 23,000 square kilometers of sea waterways, 450 lock chambers, two dams and over 100 modern public sea and inland ports.

This diversity highlights the range of applications that will be served and also how some will dovetail with smart seaport deployments occurring in parallel. The latter is significant because seaports as major trade and distribution hubs have been a greater focus of early IT and 4G and 5G developments around automation and frictionless movement of goods on and off ships, aided by autonomous cranes and vehicles.

This is most evident in China, where Ericsson and China Unicom, the country’s third (and world’s fourth) largest mobile service provider by subscriber numbers, have been building a 5G smart harbor at the Port of Qingdao. This is one of the world’s 10 busiest ports on the basis of containers processed at over 19m a year.

The interesting point here is that 5G has been introduced as the second phase of an automation project whose first part has been operational since 2017 and has achieved additional savings in labor costs of 70%, according to the port. This is largely because the time ships spend in harbor and consequently to load and unload has been greatly reduced through use of 38 more advanced automated hydrogen-powered rail cranes, along with 45 guided vehicles, all controlled over 5G links.

Of course such advanced features are not widely applicable at least yet for inland waterways, but there is an overlap as these include smaller freshwater ports on rivers, along with some ports alongside estuaries that fall into both camps. Indeed, Vodafone’s main focus over the German inland waterway project has been on digital shipping. As part of the project, Vodafone is assessing how digital shipping can dovetail with the ‘Förde 5G’ project in the city of Kiel, involving use of 9 5G antennas across three locations serving the Kiel inner canal area.

Equally, the 5G connectivity will serve passengers on ships who will benefit from faster connections and lower latency, according to the operator. This may play a minor role attracting customers to the many cruises and trips across the country’s waterways. However, many of these cruise ships cross borders, as do freight shipping routes, so the 5G service will only reach full utility when extended to multiple countries, as is happening for road and rail in trials funded by the EU.

This all dates back almost three decades to 1992 when a canal link established between the rivers Main and Danube made it possible for the first time to sail from the North Sea to the Black Sea entirely on inland waterways crossing four countries. This spawned a major effort to establish more uniform communications across all waterways within countries on the contiguous continent, many of which either were or became members of the EU. At the time this meant establishing early 2G cellular connectivity, backed up by satellite and basic VHF radio coverage.

Since then waterways have undergone various iterations of communications improvement, with cellular first making a significant contribution to cost reduction and efficiency with the advent of 3G in the noughties, and the associated GPRS (General Packer Radio Service), which for the first time enabled a continuous internet connection over cellular. Then the arrival of 4G around 2010 enabled mobile to take on logistical applications previously confined to fixed networks but limited by inability to reach beyond land-based infrastructure beside the water.

Among many examples, in 2015 the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) of Singapore, as part of its smarter port initiative, deployed 4G connectivity reaching out 15 kilometers from the coastline, for use by ships in just-in-time logistics, analytics and access to dedicated apps for on-board staff as they negotiated the port’s waters.

Not surprisingly given its history of early deployments the MPA is also early to deploy standalone 5G in port operations, in this case to test drone flights around the dock area and around the coast up to 3km offshore. This is for a variety of use cases, including assistance with navigation around the port, monitoring of logistical processes and s

hip-to-shore delivery of lighter goods, at this stage up to around 4kg per payload.

These 5G trials are being conducted by MPA in conjunction with regulator Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), telco M1 and Airbus at the Singapore Maritime Drone Estate. The initial priority is to establish that UAVs can operate safely and efficiently around ports but then move on to assess where 5G can make the strongest contribution and look towards adding a 5G standard specific not so much to ports but UAV operations in general.

The MPA also seeks to establish how much more accurate 5G based geopositioning can be than the current generation of Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). Drones require sub-meter accuracy at least for some of the proposed use cases such as the delivery. There is also potential for use of submarine drones in maintenance of ships below the surface, which is already being trialed by some other ports such as Amsterdam.

It will only be a matter of time before use of drones in some of these capacities extends to inland waterways to exploit the 5G deployments now starting to take place. There is already growing interest for monitoring traffic, inspecting vessels and also some off-boat applications such as following fish movements.