While the Covid-19 pandemic has severely affected the maritime sector, it has certainly strengthened the case for deploying more technology-based solutions. Technologies that were supposed to be deployed sequentially are now being implemented in parallel. From port authorities to customs officials, no maritime stakeholder is leaving any stone unturned to increase the uptake of technology solutions. Going forward, increasing the level of mechanisation at ports will be one of the key drivers of activity in the sector.
Digital solutions and initiatives
Growing competition has led ports to focus on improving efficiency and productivity through the modernisation and mechanisation of their facilities, as well as digitalisation of operations. In this regard, the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways has, in coordination with port authorities, taken a number of modernisation, mechanisation and digitalisation initiatives to reduce dwell time and transaction costs.
One of the most important technological transformations has to do with port authorities and other stakeholders switching to cloud computing and other cloud-based technologies. In addition, many ports are moving towards a more standardised platform, that is, enterprise resource planning (ERP). ERP not only reduces system development time, but also helps in the standardisation of workflow.
Another major technological initiative taken amidst the ongoing pandemic is the digital issuance and approval of documents. Earlier, a lot of paperwork was required for handling cargo at ports. Covid-19 has greatly reduced the amount of paperwork. Customs authorities, too, have been quick to adapt to the changed requirements. Documents such as out of charge and final assessment papers are now being provided online by customs without any manual intervention.
A growing number of Indian ports are planning to increase the number of internet of things tags and switch from computer-based to app-based technologies in order to increase efficiency levels at ports. Various ports are also enhancing the use of digital marketing for providing real-time information to customers, providing up-to-date information on its websites, and sending notifications and alerts to end customers. Meanwhile, many major ports have also implemented an e-office system that staff members can access online for administrative approvals. The outbreak of the pandemic has made the e-office necessary for port operations.
Future technologies in the post-Covid world
In the post-Covid world, the government’s increased focus on digitalisation of port operations is expected to bring about an improvement in efficiency levels and increase cargo handling at ports. Moreover, the worldwide drive to digitalise ports and the global market for the “smart port” segment is projected to be $5.3 billion by 2024, from an estimated $1.7 billion in 2019. Experts have suggested that smart ports are the only ports that will survive in the long term.
In this respect, the adoption of 5G technologies is expected to further enhance the efficiency levels at Indian ports. Several countries in Asia, such as China, have already deployed automated ship-to-shore cranes, operated from a control centre via 5G connectivity to lift containers. Artificial intelligence (AI) is also expected to make headway in the sector. The container processing at Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Limited-owned ports already involves AI-based container number recognition systems, removing human intervention.
Smart ship construction is also taking root in India. Cochin Shipyard Limited has taken the lead in India to build autonomous vessels and is primed to build “smart tugs and ferries”. The global market trends for autonomous ships are also very encouraging, as this segment is projected to reach $13.8 billion in 2030 from $6.1 billion in 2018, registering a CAGR of 7 per cent.
Currently, Indian ports are still lagging behind in the adoption of blockchain technologies. However, going forward, the deployment of blockchain technologies will become imperative and port operators will have to be trained to use these technologies to ensure their success. Port personnel such as workers, labourers, truckers and supply chain managers will also become a part of the digital port ecosystem. Hence, there would be a need to train workers with Industry 4.0 toolkits to support smart port and smart ship operations.
The road ahead
In sum, the opportunity for modernisation and mechanisation at Indian ports is enormous. The flagship programme of the maritime sector, the Sagarmala also has modernisation as one of its key components. While the port and customs authorities have already been implementing a plethora of initiatives to increase their efficiency levels, the pandemic has made it inevitable now.