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How innovative tech gives Flanders’ ports an edge

Ports need to get goods on the right roads quickly, cheaply and safely. To maximize the necessary logistics efficiency, new technological developments are being introduced continuously – not in the least at Flanders’ ports. To highlight just one example: using 5G, drones, sensors and artificial intelligence, the Antwerp port area, which is part of the unified Port of Antwerp-Bruges, is transforming into one of the most vibrant innovation spots in Flanders and beyond. 

With an emphasis on operational improvement, the Port of Antwerp-Bruges is steadily rolling out innovative technologies: not with large multi-year plans and ambitious slogans, but by testing on a small scale and focusing on what produces the best results. The use of drones offers a great example. After months of testing, a fleet of drones will now be deployed to carry out missions throughout the Antwerp port area. 

DronePort at Port of Antwerp-Bruges

DronePort at Port of Antwerp-Bruges. 

Assistant drones

The Antwerp port area, in collaboration with the telecom operator Proximus as well as drone experts DroneMatrix and Skeydrone, will offer access to the drones as a platform to carry out assignments. “Together with the University of Antwerp, we have already mapped out over 50 possible applications,” says Piet Opstaele, Manager of Innovation Enablement at the Port of Antwerp-Bruges.

“For example, AI algorithms were developed to detect oil spills in the port using drone camera images. The drones can also provide assistance during major incidents, such as fires. In September 2021, we deployed a drone to help with a fire on a quay. It transmitted live images to the emergency services. The fire department was immediately convinced by the system.”

Sensors galore

In addition to drones, connected sensors are also ideal tools for quickly detecting possible issues in the port. The 12,000-hectare port area in Antwerp has some 70 digital noses or ‘iNoses’ which permanently monitor air quality. “The sensors can detect nitrogen and sulfur compounds and some 50 organic components often found in petrochemicals, such as benzene and toluene,” says Opstaele. “If they measure anomalous values, we can quickly send out an inspector. The virtual noses help trace the source of the odor nuisance, but also detect gases that people cannot smell.”

“Our port sometimes suffers from degassing during transshipment or as a result of illegal discharges,” Opstaele adds. “This can cause odor nuisance and irritation. A project is currently underway to trace the source of these gases, using a model that takes all sorts of parameters into account, such as wind direction. The aim is to be able to take immediate action and prevent additional nuisance.”

These examples pay testimony to how the port approaches innovation:

Both the port area and its companies are primarily focused on operational efficiency. You won't find any big, expensive projects here. Instead, we are seeing more and more local and pragmatic yet equally innovative initiatives. 

Piet Opstaele
Manager of Innovation Enablement at Port of Antwerp-Bruges

Global frontrunner

However, the pragmatic innovation approach of Flanders' ports is certainly not synonymous with a lack of ambition. On the contrary: with certain projects, the shipping industry in Flanders is leading the way worldwide. A good example is the remotely controlled ships of Seafar. From a control room in the heart of Antwerp, the Seafar captains are able to steer a dozen cargo ships on Flanders’ inland waterways. Since 2021, the company has also been experimenting with a 110-meter remotely controlled container ship that sails between Zeebrugge and Antwerp via the Western Scheldt estuary.

This latter project also illustrates how technology is bringing the two merged port areas of Antwerp and Zeebrugge physically closer. A “corridor” is emerging between Flanders’ coast and the Western Scheldt estuary, featuring cross-border 5G coverage that will enable the deployment of drones. Opstaele: “We have already carried out specific tests using drones that can function autonomously for ten hours straight. With such a development, we are further enhancing the connection between the two port areas.” 

Autonomous vessels

In addition to Seafar’s remote-controlled container ship, which still has a limited crew on board, several fully autonomous boats are already sailing in and around the port areas of Antwerp and Zeebrugge. For instance, the EchoDrone, a self-propelled sounding boat, is used in case of dredging activities in the docks behind the locks. Opstaele: “To carry out such depth measurements, you would typically need to use a fairly large vessel, which can be challenging within a port environment. We want to demonstrate that it can be done with a small, autonomous boat.”

The autonomous sounding boats are also used in the Scheldt River, in cooperation with the Bruges-based company dotOcean. Moreover, the Belgian navy is also testing a prototype of a sailing drone for monitoring offshore wind farms. 

Sensor-driven risk management

Like autonomous vessels, connected sensors also help reduce costs and risks at the Port of Antwerp-Bruges. Researchers from Antwerp University and imec (Flanders’ strategic research center for nanotech and digital innovation) have devised a system to prevent accidents with mooring bollards. The Antwerp port area has about 7,000 bollards, which must be able to withstand colossal tensile forces. If one of these 400-kilogram bollards breaks, it can cause enormous physical and material damage.

The system uses an accelerometer to measure the impact of mooring vessels. “We can install the sensor in a bolt of the mooring bollard within just a few minutes,” says Svetlana Samsonova from Port of the Future, the joint innovation platform of the Port of Antwerp-Bruges and the University of Antwerp. “The sensor can then be used to monitor all the maneuvers of ships very well. The resulting data also gives an insight into the ‘health’ of each bollard. This is important information for the large port terminals. What’s more, the impact sensors can also be used to detect damage to quay walls and can be supplemented with inspections carried out by drones.”

At the Port of Antwerp-Bruges, more than a dozen larger and smaller initiatives like the mooring bollard project are underway to contribute to a more sustainable and efficient port. For instance, road surface sensors are being used to study which asphalt is best suited to handle heavy traffic in the port area. Another project is looking at the deployment of water sensors to monitor the water quality in the docks.

From sandplain to innovation hub

Less than a 15-minute drive from the Antwerp Port House, there’s a gigantic, windy sandplain. In the distance, some lorries and port cranes are visible on the horizon. Such vast emptiness is exceptional in the Antwerp port area, but don’t let looks deceive you. The site will not remain empty for very long. 

By early 2023 the first companies of the NextGen District, a new innovation hub for a sustainable port industry, will be buzzing with activity at the 88-hectare site. 

The NextGen District will focus on sustainable industrial production and the energy transition. In particular, we want to attract companies active in the storage or use of captured CO₂, the processing of biomass such as agricultural waste, and the recycling of plastic waste.

Dries Van Gheluwe
Business Development Advisor at Port of Antwerp-Bruges

Two companies have already signed up to build a plant at the NextGent District. Triple Helix will recycle polyurethane foam from old mattresses, insulation and car seats. Meanwhile, American company Bolder Industries will extract carbon black – a raw material for new car tires – and oil from old tires.

In addition to gas, water and grid connections, the Port of Antwerp-Bruges will also provide space for hydrogen and CO₂ pipelines. The site also has room for NextGenDemo, a test facility where start-ups can demonstrate their technologies in the pre-commercial phase.

More info

Port of Antwerp-Bruges
Reported by
newspaper Gazet van Antwerpen
24 May 2022

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