Trevor Anderson, Director of Infrastructure and Business Transformation at Belfast Harbour talks to AECOM about how it is taking a smarter approach to future growth.
A visit to any modern port’s website or strategic plan will reveal references like ‘smart port’ and digital transformation, and Belfast Harbour is no exception. Our strategic ambition sets out ‘A Vision to 2035’, to be the world’s best regional port and key economic hub, as Northern Ireland’s leading gateway for trade and tourism. This means creating an iconic Belfast waterfront district, working in partnership to develop attractive and safe places where people want to work, live, invest and visit. Five core themes underpin the delivery of this vision, including the creation of a ‘smart port’ with best in class digital and telecoms infrastructure.
Belfast Harbour handles more than 70% of the region’s seaborne imports and exports and the 2,000-acre Harbour Estate hosts more than 5 million annual visits, including 1.75 million ferry and cruise ship passengers. It is also home to a vibrant mix of 760 businesses working across multiple sectors, including marine logistics, commercial, residential, financial, IT, tourism and creative industries.
With such a concentration of economic activity and vital infrastructure, the success of Belfast Harbour and its tenants has a direct impact on the success of the wider economy. As port industry leaders, our technical operations continually evolve to meet the changing needs of our customers and become ‘smarter’ to help unlock new levels of efficiency and open new avenues for improvement.
Digital technologies are finding new solutions to traditional challenges, creating the opportunity for much wider sharing of data across the entire port community. High speed communications and Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are also opening up new possibilities. The value creation from these new opportunities is core to making our digital agenda truly transformational.
Previously, ports were perceived primarily as gateways for the flow of goods; today we recognise that we have a broader role to play within a complex web of supply chains. In this sense, Belfast Harbour is a key economic hub where multiple service providers such as cargo owners, hauliers, stevedores, shipping agents, freight forwards and shipping lines interact with each other and Government and regulatory bodies to move cargo efficiently.
With so much interconnected activity happening within the Port and the supply chain, information exchange is key. Partners range from global organisations with modern IT systems to local SMEs with more limited digital infrastructure. There is an opportunity for Belfast Harbour to play a key facilitation role by providing the infrastructure to support the efficient sharing of information or by empowering participants in the process with information to enable them to make more informed decisions.
In this way, a haulage firm with limited IT systems could, as a member of such a port community system, access timely information on cargo movements and in turn help them plan work for lorries and drivers more efficiently. This system would also help streamline documentation procedures, reducing the time that lorries spend in the Port, improving hauliers’ operating costs and reducing CO2 from exhaust emissions.
While the benefits of a community solution are clear, there are significant delivery challenges. Firstly, there are many players to co-ordinate and not all may be ready to participate. This not only presents a significant communication and co-ordination challenge, but also a technical infrastructure challenge in providing the integration to multiple systems while respecting commercial sensitivities and the needs of cyber security.
Belfast Harbour’s geographic footprint of 3,000 acres of land and sea requires significant asset management. Such assets range from streetlights or sewage pumping stations to cranes and complex engineering equipment. We will use innovations in digital technology to aid the management and maintenance of the physical asset base across the Estate.
If we look at the lower complexity end, equipment sensors will provide remote status information avoiding the need for staff to undertake frequent inspection visits. Such status information will also prevent problems from occurring by warning of anomalies before significant service failures or costly breakdowns occur.
Ever more intelligent CCTV solutions can improve safety and security through video analytics, with AI quickly recognising emerging situations to report for action. While today, this solution requires an extensive fibre optic infrastructure, 5G is beginning to provide more flexible installation options and mobile personal access to CCTV images to Belfast Harbour personnel in the field.
More complex communications solutions will transform our field maintenance operations and deliver greater value. While servicing our geographically widespread assets, our technicians will benefit by leveraging the power of technologies such as 5G, AR and ‘wearable tech’ to provide them with hands-free access to technical information via an AR eyepiece. By way of a camera on the eyepiece, our engineers back at home base will see what the technicians sees and will be able to provide guidance by voice communication or by annotating instructions on the technicians’ field of view. Such technology is exciting and truly transformative and will deliver significant safety and efficiency benefits.
We are leveraging digital technology in the development cycle of our infrastructure and assets. Belfast Harbour is a major developer, not just of port infrastructure but of real estate including offices, film studios, leisure and public realm space. By adopting more advanced digital methods, for example using Building Information Management (BIM) techniques, our engineering teams can more efficiently plan, design, construct and manage our buildings and infrastructure.
Almost everything within the modern port is developed with data. This includes detailed underwater survey data which we have developed into a digital dataset, with the assistance of a local SME. With this information we can track and visualise seabed changes or calculate the amount of material to be dredged. Other examples include the as-designed and as-built digital datasets that define our buildings and infrastructure, or the simulated traffic flows that are used to optimise road infrastructure design.
All these digital datasets are being collated into a digital twin of Belfast Harbour which will be a multi-layered digital representation of the Port. At its highest level it will appear as a map upon which the user can choose to select and view different layers. There will also be dynamic status information, for example, on calibrated items or operational status information which is fed from IoT sensors for equipment such as cranes. We are also exploring how this digital twin can be visualised and how to make the information available to field personnel through mobility solutions.
In the future, secure, high-speed, low-latency communications infrastructure will be key to meeting other emerging digital needs and opportunities. Over time, autonomous vehicles could, for example, be used within ports, enabled by communication technologies such as 5G.
As part of our strategic ambitions to become one of the world’s most sustainable ports, we’ve already adopted measures such as replacing lights on quays and our 30km road network with energy efficient units that will reduce lighting energy consumption by more than 50%.
Designed with sustainability in mind, we have a new self-powered solar and wind LED lighting tower and a ‘smart flower’ that helps to power our new cruise terminal with solar energy. Ultimately, being a ‘smart’ port will enable us to digitise, decarbonise and decentralise energy usage by, amongst other things, creating a green micro-energy grid throughout the Harbour Estate.
The same ethos extends to our plans to develop world-class public realm spaces and new interactive experiences supported by 5G and public Wi-Fi. In our City Quays development, for instance, we’ve installed smart benches that allow the public to charge their devices using solar energy. By supporting a clean environment and using tech to enhance personal experiences we believe that a digital transformation will help make Belfast Harbour a testbed to pilot new innovations.
In delivering these strategic goals we’ve committed to taking a proactive approach to developing stakeholder partnerships, creating synergies to yield value in ways that we couldn’t have anticipated.
To help deliver decarbonisation we’ve already established a consortium of SMEs to conceptualise a smart energy district with the support of NI Electricity and Belfast City Council. Together we will help facilitate firms who wish to develop and test smart solutions within Belfast Harbour Estate.
Ultimately, it’s about the power of information and working collaboratively to maximise opportunities. We’re genuinely excited about how technology can drive innovation in ways that just weren’t possible even a couple of years ago. We have the scale and scope to support a smart transformation that can put Belfast Harbour and Northern Ireland to the fore of the digital revolution.