Unlocking four Industry Firsts with the NZP 5G Smart Port

ICT can jumpstart global logistics & help lead us out of today's economic slump. Read how.

By Huang Yanhui

Alongside the prevention and control of COVID-19, economic recovery is at the top of the agenda for governments across the world. In that regard, ports act as a weather vane for economic vitality. 


China’s Ningbo-Zhoushan port (NZP) is one of the top three busiest ports in the world, ranking first globally in cargo throughput for 11 consecutive years. Comprising 19 port areas with over 620 berths, NZP serves more than 100 vessels with over 10,000 tons of capacity every day. Nationally, the port was one of the first places to resume operations during the pandemic, representing a huge step in spurring the resumption of national and global logistics systems.

Ports have a strong need for improving operating efficiency. Daily rent for large vessels can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars – an extra hour of waiting or procedures can mean tens of thousands of dollars flushed down the drain. The biggest requirement for a key port such as NZP, which operates 24/7, 365 days a year, is to boost automation and efficiency. However, due to the impact of the coronavirus, NZP has faced massive challenges to keep running during the pandemic, as workers have stayed away.

What’s the solution? NZP can only reduce costs and increase efficiency by applying new technologies, such as 5G, edge computing, artificial intelligence (AI), and autonomous driving, that will make port services digital, automated, and smart.

To achieve this, Huawei, China Mobile Zhejiang, and a team of partners are working with the port operator, Zhejiang Seaport Investment and Operations Group, to develop smart 5G applications.

Back in 2018, Huawei helped China Mobile Zhejiang build the country's first 5G port application pilot at NZP. In April 2019, they successfully verified remote gantry crane operations, management, and video backhaul applications based on the 5G network. Also in 2019, they launched the world's first independent, controllable 5G VoNR service between the port and Hangzhou. Today, NZP enjoys full 5G network coverage, with the pilot port applications in regular commercial use, realizing huge cost and efficiency gains.

Normal port procedures involve humans and machines working together, which is both labor-intensive and complex. Unloading cargo ships, for example, is divided into three steps: First, quay-side cranes lift the cargo from the cargo ship on to container trucks at the terminal. Second, the trucks transport the goods from the terminal to a yard. Third, gantry cranes unload the containers from the truck into the yard. 

At NZP, the 5G smart port services cover the core operating procedures, including three main 5G applications for unloading cargo ships: smart cargo handling, automated logistics with unmanned trucks, and remote control of the gantry crane.

Smart cargo handling

Cargo handling involves counting, damage checks, and stowage. The main purpose of cargo handling is to confirm whether the goods unloaded from/loaded to the cargo ship match the information from the vehicle that receives and delivers the goods.

Port quays can be harsh, high-risk environments. They’re affected by cold sea breezes in winter, scorching sun in summer, the constant movement of trucks, and falling objects from gantries or containers, all of which create a constantly challenging environment for cargo handlers. Moreover, information records rely on the handlers’ powers of observation, which limits accuracy and efficiency.

The 5G solution provides 15 channels of high-definition (HD) cameras, with 5G backhaul installed on each quay-side gantry crane. The HD video captured by the cameras is distributed locally through multi-access edge computing (MEC) deployed in the port server room, so that the data does not leave the port area. A machine vision analysis application and smart cargo handling system are integrated on the MEC platform, enabling AI recognition of video images powered by the supercomputing capabilities of MEC heterogeneous hardware. The object recognition system covers information and statuses, including container number and type, terminal truck operation number, and single container load position and lane number. Achieving 95 percent accuracy, the system completes recognition within seconds and automatically issues confirmation notices to truck drivers and bridge crane operators, so the loading and unloading process remains uninterrupted. 

Using the 5G network and MEC, the cargo handlers can work from an air-conditioned smart cargo command center. According to one NZP smart cargo handler, "5G smart cargo handling has improved our working environment. Now I can do the same volume of work as two people. Efficiency has improved a lot."

Automated logistics with unmanned trucks

With the port operating 24/7, container truck drivers work in three shifts a day and driver fatigue is common. Moreover, the twistlocks of gantry cranes and locking points in the container have to be aligned to within a centimeter of accuracy, calling for a very high level of driving experience and skill – the shortage of truck drivers is a big issue for ports. Although traditional automated guided vehicles (AGVs) can solve this problem, the difficulty of reconstructing ports for their use, plus their lack of flexibility and high cost, limit their application.

Automated logistics with unmanned trucks is based on 5G's precise positioning capabilities and MEC. A 360-degree video of the interior and exterior of self-driving trucks from multi-channel HD cameras is transmitted to the MEC control room in real time through a 5G end-to-end slicing network. Coupled with technologies like vehicle-road coordination, high-precision positioning, and automated command positioning, the solution improves the positioning accuracy of container trucks in the port area from meters to centimeters. Thanks to these advantages, self-driving trucks have replaced the traditional geomagnetically controlled remote driving system.

The unmanned truck drives to a designated location under the quay-side crane and then parks. Once the crane places a container on the vehicle and confirms it, the truck starts up automatically and its steering wheel turns automatically. The truck identifies the environment of the road, and can decelerate, brake, turn, avoid objects, and park on its own, choosing the optimal route to its designated location.

5G unmanned trucks have transformed cargo transportation, slashing labor costs. For instance, the Meishan port area of NZP requires 800 drivers working in three shifts to drive over 200 container trucks, costing close to 100 million yuan (US$14.03 million) a year. Moreover, 5G unmanned trucks have significantly improved the port's operating efficiency and safety, evolving the port from a labor-intensive industry to automated, smart, and unmanned.

Remote-controlled gantry cranes

After the unmanned truck has parked in the designated location in the yard, the gantry crane operator grabs the container on the truck and places it in a set area. In the past, operators had to climb to the top of the 30-meter high cranes every day and then work for 12 hours non-stop in a drafty metal cab. They were also prone to neck and shoulder strain due to prolonged tilting of the head while operating cranes.

In the 5G remote gantry crane operations system, E2E network slicing and MEC support a 5G private network with ultra-low latency, ultra-high reliability, and large upstream bandwidth, meeting the service requirements for remote PLC (programmable logic controller) crane control, and real-time, multi-channel HD video backhaul.

Unlike optical fiber and Wi-Fi, the 5G communication system provides ultra-large bandwidth, ultra-low latency, and massive connectivity. There are no bulky fiber optic cables to migrate when reconstructing yards or moving gantry cranes, and it avoids the low reliability and insufficient upstream bandwidth of Wi-Fi.

NZP has currently transformed six gantry cranes with the solution and put them into regular operation. With the 5G slicing network and MEC, average E2E latency is cut to between 8 and 10 milliseconds, PLC reliability is 99.999 percent, and upstream bandwidth for HD video backhaul is 1 Gbps.

Crane operators can control the gantry cranes remotely using backhauled multi-channel HD video in real time from a central control room. Only picking up the containers requires human-guided remote control and one operator can easily operate three or four cranes simultaneously, compared with one operator per crane before.

Four industry firsts

On May 15, 2020, Huawei, China Mobile Zhejiang, Zhejiang Seaport Group, and Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries signed a strategic agreement to develop 5G demo applications for the Ningbo 5G+ Smart Port. The project will achieve four firsts:

  1. The first port to use E2E network slicing and MEC with guaranteed service-level agreements (SLAs) for key port services. Huawei helped China Mobile Zhejiang to deploy an E2E network slice, including 5G customer premises equipment (CPE); wireless, bearer, and core networks; and CSMF, NSMF, and other network elements. China Mobile Zhejiang is also the first telco to set up and launch a 5G online store to enable 5G smart ports.
  2. The first port to verify 5G gantry crane remote control and put it into regular use. Six 5G-powered gantry cranes have been reconstructed and verified. The 5G solution has been verified to meet both the upstream bandwidth and stable low latency required for the remote control of multiple gantry cranes.
  3. The first port with an end-to-end uplink enhancement solution that meets the large uplink demands of port gantry cranes, container trucks, video surveillance, and other services.
  4. The first port with a slicing package network (SPN) intelligent bearer network dedicated channel solution. FlexE-based network slicing enables smart ultra-wide guarantees for the port's bandwidth requirements, alongside next-gen routing protocol segment routing (SR). With the iMaster Network Cloud Engine (NCE), the solution provides intelligent connections, ensuring the low latency requirements of port production services are met. Intelligent O&M based on NCE and In-situ Flow Information Telemetry (iFIT) meets the high-reliability requirements of port services.

The Ningbo 5G+ Smart Port strategic agreement will help the port put a full range of 5G services into regular operation, including unmanned-truck-based automated logistics, smart cargo handling, and video AI. It will also promote enterprise application planning, industry-specific design, implementation, acceptance, and standards for 5G communications, edge computing, AI, image recognition, and autonomous driving at ports. 5G technology can help build world-class ports by driving digital transformation and, in the post-pandemic era, sound the clarion call for economic recovery.