How to Build the UK’s First Smart Port

Nick Chubb and Johnny Hugill

08 February 2019

Johnny Hugill, lead researcher at PUBLIC, and Nick Chubb, co-author of PUBLIC’s report Frictionless Trade, look into building the UK’s first Smart Port following its announcement in Maritime 2050. 

Two weeks ago, the Department for Transport published its long-term strategy for the future of the UK’s maritime sector – Maritime 2050.

This strategy has arrived at a particularly important time for the UK. There has simply never been more public and political interest in this country surrounding international trade.

Indeed, with over 95% of our international trade going through our ports and across our seas, a successful maritime strategy is of critical importance for the UK economy.

Maritime 2050 represents an enormously encouraging and ambitious vision for the UK’s maritime sector. Not only does it outline key provisions to future-proof the UK from the global macro-trends shaping the industry, but it also targets areas where the UK has the potential to develop key strategic advantages.

More specifically, it makes the case for the UK to lead the way on clean energy growth, maritime safety and security, and the application of new and emerging technologies.

This is a vision for UK maritime that we share at PUBLIC. In October, we published our own report on the future of the UK’s maritime sector – ‘Frictionless Trade’ – which outlines the key technology capabilities that the UK must embrace to protect and consolidate its place as an international trading powerhouse.

Nusrat Ghani MP launching PUBLIC’s Frictionless Trade report

In particular, Maritime 2050 makes a commitment to deliver on a key recommendation outlined in our report: to develop the first smart port in the UK by 2030.

What is a smart port?

As an island nation, the UK’s ports are vital pieces of infrastructure, facilitating the overwhelming majority of our trade with the rest of the world. In its most basic form, a smart port leverages digital technologies to continually improve the safety, efficiency, yield, and environmental impact of these trading operations.

Achieving this level of digital transformation requires the development of an ecosystem where innovation can flourish. Global seaports including Rotterdam, Antwerp, and Singapore have launched dedicated smart port ventures over the past few years, usually in partnership with the local port authority, government, academic institutions and corporate shipping and logistics companies.

The upshot of this is that these ports are far ahead of any port in the UK in terms of core technology capabilities, especially those relating to the seamless processing of imports and exports.

In the world-famous Port of Rotterdam for instance, there are autonomous gantry cranes and trucks handling the loading and discharging of cargo, as well as a dedicated data-driven application for optimising how ships come in and out of port (developed by Dutch startup Teqplay).

Indeed, the Port of Rotterdam provides a model for how to successfully execute a smart port: operating every day at full capacity, its operators move between 25-50% more containers per hour than any other port in Northern Europe.

Autonomous gantry cranes in Rotterdam

Importantly, these innovations have largely been powered by support and funding from government, and have seen local high-tech maritime startups contribute to the national trading capacity.

What technologies should we have in our smart port?

There are a number of well-established and maturing technologies that could feature in the UK’s first smart port. Below, we review the technology systems that should be at the centre of any smart port:

Improved connectivity

The underlying infrastructure behind any smart port will be the availability of the connectivity systems that are as strong as anywhere inland. Today, connectivity in ports (and coastal areas more generally) often lags behind the UK’s major cities. The rollout of industrial WiFi or 5G in a future smart port is a key enabler for a new wave of digital innovation.

Forward-thinking ports are already starting to build up their connectivity capacity. Last year, the Port of Hamburg launched a successful 5G pilot in partnership with Deutsche Telekom and Nokia. Indeed, connectivity solutions are not only being offered by major IT providers. Belgian startup Port-Wifi develops and implements tailor-made connectivity solutions for ports, making it possible and affordable to connect smart devices and assets to a network. Their first networks have been deployed to the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam and have not only made it possible to connect IoT devices, but also connect visiting seafarers to the internet.

Automation of physical assets

Every day, thousands of tonnes of goods are physically moved on or off ships safely and efficiently by cranes, conveyors, and pumps. From there, they are transported throughout the port for storage and further processing.

The ships, cranes, and port vehicles that support this process can all be automated, with a significant amount of progress already made in this area. In addition to the automation of gantry cranes, trucks and straddlers at ports around the world, we are now starting to see the automation of ships. Boston-based Sea Machines builds autonomous control and remote command systems to upgrade the operation of commercial vessels. They have recently worked with Danish shipping giant Maersk to install AI-powered situational awareness technology to their new ice-class container vessels.  

On top of the automation of physical assets, artificial intelligence has an important role to play in the implementation of smart storage and processing of goods and in port security. London startup Stowga has created an on-demand ‘Uber for warehousing’ platform which allows users to book space in one of 4,000 warehouses they currently have live.

Port-call optimisation platforms

Digital port-call optimisation platforms are transforming the flow of ships in and out of ports. Powered by geospatial location data, and the real-time tracking of document exchanges, these platforms provide ports, shipping companies, agents, terminal operators, and service providers with a shared operational view and joint window for the exchange of information related to their port calls.

Using a combination of publicly available data and private data submitted by participants, it is possible for any stakeholder to get a real time and planned overview of the port and vessel movements within.

Port of Rotterdam

In addition to the highly sophisticated platform developed by Teqplay at the Port of Rotterdam, London-based Intelligent Cargo Systems has recently launched a new free self-assessment tool for container ship operators. With just a few simple questions, their calculator helps container ship fleet management teams to assess the efficiency of their port-call process and how this is affecting their bunker consumption.

Secure digital communication systems

The global trade in goods generates an incredible amount of data but the shipping industry is still heavily reliant on phone calls, email, and even fax. Indeed, the principal method of contact between the ship’s crew and personnel on the shore is by VHF radio, which is a reliable but limited method of communication.

New communication platforms will allow more seamless and secure processing and exchange of operational and transactional data. Indeed, new workflow and communication platforms are not only the remit of office-based tools such as Slack and Teams: over the last few years, we have seen a proliferation of newer players in the market, such as Zaptic, and Blink in the UK, which offer single workflow platforms optimised for deskless field operations and multi-stakeholder management.

Creating cloud-based platforms that communicate the correct information to every stakeholder in the complicated shipping process will completely revolutionise the way ships are operated. London based Shipamax has developed a communication platform that automatically extracts important data from emails and attachments and feeds it into existing internal systems. Collaborative communication tools like this can reduce planning and administration time, with Shipamax’s platform able to cut freight forwarding admin costs by up to 70%.

IoT for maintenance of port assets

Ports represent the perfect setting for the application of industrial IoT. They contain valuable assets deployed over vast areas. There are high costs for any disruption or downtime. Service visits to assets must be well-timed and well-prepared to avoid unnecessary operational disruption.  

If a crane or cargo pump stops working for a prolonged period, it can cause major disruption, not just to the ship currently on the berth, but to all the ships that are waiting to come into the port. As such, emerging IoT technologies such as remote monitoring, predictive maintenance and performance analysis offer enormous potential for the safe and secure management of port key port assets.

This is the principle used by major engine manufacturer Wärtsilä, who have created a dynamic maintenance planning service which relies on IoT sensors to monitor engine condition, and provide automatic responses to maintenance staff as soon as an alert is flagged.

Real-time vehicle tracking

The flow of vehicles in and out of ports is also a further key area where technology can make a difference. In particular, new technology platforms allow shippers, hauliers and customers to have complete visibility over vehicles and assets across the supply chain.

There are two main models for the live tracking of vehicles in real-time. One (employed by Swedish company Automile) involves drivers simply downloading an app on their phone, allowing fleet managers to use geolocation data to track the movement and position of their vehicles in real-time. This allows enterprise companies running fleets to track their vehicles, which could have powerful potential applications coming in and out of ports.

The second (used by London-based startup ChillChain) requires connecting to driver’s operating systems via an API, without the need for them to download any additional software on their phones.

Both of these forms of tracking can provide unprecedented levels of information and transparency in the journey of vehicles carrying cargo. These kinds of systems will be crucial to delivering fully-joined up ports, operating at maximum operational efficiency.


Finally, the global shipping industry simply needs to move away from its reliance on fossil fuels to move goods around the world.  Last year, the IMO introduced its new green new strategy, which aims for global greenhouse gas emissions from the industry to be halved from the 2008 levels by 2050, as well as a longer term vision to make the industry entirely emission-free beyond that.

For the industry to hit these targets, all ships built from 2030 onwards will need to be emission-free. Electric power and hydrogen have both long been touted as marine fuels of the future, and their development and the infrastructure required to produce them represents a massive opportunity for the UK.  

How can the UK build its own smart port?

Taking advantage of the smart port opportunity is not only a matter of developing new technologies. Creating a sustainable and effective smart port requires establishing a thriving innovation hub, powered by startups, government and leading research institutions. To make a success of our first smart port, we propose the following steps:

Build the infrastructure

First, the UK has to build the right infrastructure to make a success of its first smart port. That includes a strong connectivity system, and most importantly, a state-of-the-art solution to prevent the port’s digital assets from cybersecurity attacks.

Indeed, as well as building the physical and technological infrastructure required for a smart port, it is also important to ensure that there is also the regulatory and financial infrastructure in place to make it thrive.

Blend public and private funding

Building a hub for innovation will require a mixture of public and private finance initiatives, including grant funding for research and growth capital for emerging businesses. A strong anchor investment commitment from UK government to develop a world-leading smart port will encourage major private companies to match that funding, and co-create an ecosystem that will deliver better outcomes for all parties.

Use startups to drive innovation

Over the past few years, the UK has seen the growth of an emerging ecosystem of technology startups that are transforming the entire maritime value chain. To ensure cutting-edge innovation and technology in our ports, its vital that the digitisation of our ports is led by startups.

For major infrastructure projects that are too large for startups to deliver alone, we recommend adopting the same approach used by the UK government to develop a new dedicated vertical launch site in Sutherland, Scotland. This involved providing £23.5m of funding to the major prime contractor (Lockheed Martin) to deliver the majority of the infrastructural outlay, while funding a UK startup (Orbex) with £5.5m to help to deliver innovation to the sites micro-launch capabilities.

Foster close collaboration between startups and corporates

It is very difficult for large corporate incumbents in the sector to innovate quickly on their own. Equally, it is difficult for startups to get access to the industry and feedback on what drives real value. Facilitating the sharing of technological challenges and opportunities between corporate incumbents and startup innovators helps to close that feedback loop, making innovation faster and more effective.

Run an on-site accelerator

The UK’s first smart port should include an on-site accelerator for high-growth maritime technology businesses. A smart port represents the perfect place to create a physical cluster for startups in the sector, with the new technologies and platforms being developed within this accelerator being quickly implemented and commercialised on-site.

Attract and develop talent

The digital transformation of every industry is being fuelled by talent and the maritime industry is no different. The UK is a world-leading centre for maritime training, with close ties already in place between academic institutions and industry.

Involving local education and training institutions in the development of a smart port will give academic research a route to feed into viable commercial solutions for industry and create a pipeline of people with the right qualifications, skills, and experience to transform the sector.

Involve universities and research institutions

A local university should be the key anchor in any smart port. Not only will this provide the setting for more intensive R&D projects, but universities will also enable sustained academic teaching and mentoring required to train a new wave of maritime innovators.  

Indeed, partnering with major anchor institutions such as universities is also crucial for local economic growth. In Liverpool, local cluster body Mersey Maritime, recently announced a partnership between Peel Ports, Liverpool John Moores University and Wirral Council to create a £25 million Maritime Knowledge Hub. The hub will work as a catalyst for business growth in the local area and will create 4,000 new jobs over five years.

Maritime Knowledge Hub

Importantly, however, there must be a clear link between the R&D activities of these research institutions and the commercial innovation activities of the rest of the port. In particular, there must be a clear route to commercialisation for all cutting-edge research, primarily through the smart port’s dedicated on-site accelerator. The Maritime Masters programme run by industry body Maritime UK is a great example of commercially focused academic research. Students who take part in the scheme adopt research topics proposed by industry for their Masters’ Dissertation theses. Once complete, they have the opportunity to present their findings back to industry leaders and gain work experience opportunities within the sector.


The UK government’s commitment to building the first smart port is a serious one, and is a central part of its long-term vision of becoming the most digitally-advanced trading nation in the world.

A thriving smart port, however, requires more than just building a few new digital capabilities. To fully seize on the smart port opportunity, government must demonstrate the investment and innovation appetite to build a new digitally-enabled maritime ecosystem. Not only will this guarantee better outcomes in our ports, but it will create a UK centre of excellence that will be the envy of all other trading nations around the world.

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