With its own 5G network, Zeebrugge is ready for the future

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What comes to mind when you think about the port of the future? Automatic drones, self-driving vehicles, unmanned ships? Or perhaps using data flows to create a safe and environmentally friendly port? Zeebrugge has built its own private 5G network to get ready for the future. Some are talking about it. Others are still studying it. In Zeebrugge, the future has already arrived.

Data streams

Data is an essential component of all modern operations. It's completely normal for us to be able to trace a package we have ordered online right to our door.

Ports are a tangled web of goods, people, ship movements and ever-changing conditions (including the weather and the tides, to name but a few). All of these elements can be mapped out as mathematical data, and in turn, these numbers are fed into computers. This connectivity is what keeps everything running smoothly.

"Zeebrugge wanted its network not only to be secure, reliable and fully independent, but also as fast as it could possibly be."

Peter Merlevede

The Port of Zeebrugge was on the hunt for a futureproof solution. "Fibreglass wasn't an option", says ICT manager Peter Merlevede. "Obtaining all of the necessary approvals and permits would have taken too much time. And we would have had to dig up roads and quays to install the infrastructure".

"Zeebrugge wanted its network not only to be secure, reliable and fully independent, but also as fast as it could possibly be", says Peter Merlevede. The port's solution? Construct its own private 5G network.

Zeebrugge joined forces with Nokia and Oostkamp-based company CityMesh to build an ultra-fast wireless network. "With a response time of 1 millisecond, the private 5G network beats the human reaction time of 200 milliseconds hands down. A self-driving car will be able to brake much faster than it would with a human driver behind the wheel", says the ICT manager.
The private 5G network ensures a seamless connection between the Harbour Master's Office and the Maritime Station, a location difficult to reach for telecom operators.
Speed is of critical importance when it comes to rolling out cutting-edge technologies such as automated drones, M2M (machines that communicate with one another directly, without human intervention), or VR and AR applications.

The 5G network at the Port of Zeebrugge will be rolled out in two stages.

The first phase, which tackled the outer port, involved installing antennas on the radar masts and the port building to form a triangle to cover the entire outer port area. As the antennas are omni-directional, the new network's reach even extends into the sea.

The second phase will see the 5G network expanded to the inner port; this work is also nearing completion.

Practical applications

Practical applications for the new technology are gradually being rolled out across the port. By 2021, the network will incorporate more than 100 end points, including sensors and security cameras – and the possible applications are almost limitless.

Currently, the 5G network is used to improve data and internet connectivity in locations that are more difficult for telecoms operators to physically access. One of the first major tasks for the system is to obtain offshore data from the wind farms located off the coast on behalf of Cwave/CityMesh.

From the sea station, Port Control manages traffic in the port. The private 5G network provides a super-fast connection between Port Control and the harbour master's office.
With 5G camera's on board of tugboats, it would be possible to see how tug-operations are happening safely inside and outside of the 'clean port'.
The system is based on three pillars.

In the 'green port', sensors measure air quality so that ships causing pollution can be immediately traced.

By continuously monitoring electricity consumption inside port authority buildings, abnormal peaks can be used to flag up problems so that action can be taken immediately.

In the 'safety port', automatic drones that take to the skies if a reefer container catches fire can help the fire service to locate the problem.

The system is based on three pillars.

Gas tankers often use four or five tugboats. With 5G cameras on board, the harbour master's office gets a perfect view of the towing operation for safety monitoring purposes.

Other vehicles – such as straddle carriers or quay master vehicles – can also be equipped with sensors or cameras, providing a set of 'mobile eyes' in locations where there are no permanent cameras.

The range of applications is enormous. Thanks to 5G, the port can observe, analyse and take action in real time.

The third pillar is the 'digital twin'. This virtual computer representation of a situation will be immeasurably valuable to the Harbour Coordination Centre (HCC) in the event of a crisis.

Futureproof Zeebrugge

The project that started back in September 2019 is critical to the future of the port. Customer demand is the driving force behind these changes – and they are an essential component of future development.
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