Private 5G cellular network brings autonomous trucking to life at The Port of Virginia, America’s Most Modern Gateway
It’s estimated that up to 90 percent of the world’s goods are transferred in ports. Indeed, maritime transport is the backbone of globalized trade, and container ports remain critical in global supply chains and central to growth strategies.
Consequently, the introduction of new technologies, increased digitilization and the collaborative efforts of industry stakeholders opens the door to evaluating the benefits of advanced use cases in port operations, including increased safety, transparency over operations and efficiency. One success story is The Port of Virginia. As one of the most modernized, high-tech ports in the western hemisphere, it’s known as America’s Most Modern Gateway.
When it came time for port leadership to enable the truly breakthrough use cases, they found themselves testing the limits of their existing connectivity solutions. Things like autonomous vehicles, inventory tracking, and more – a port’s IT infrastructure must be able to handle large amounts of data on a dedicated, secure and reliable network. Put simply, private cellular networks are what will enable the smart ports of the future. For the port, a private 5G cellular network, led by Verizon Business and leveraging Ericsson hardware and equipment, is helping enable an exciting project involving autonomous trucking.
“We've been the innovator,” said Rich Ceci, Senior Vice President of Technology and Projects at Virginia International Terminals. “We’ve been doing it here for 20 years … it’s really part of our DNA.”
Trucking pilot drives private 5G cellular network buildout
The journey to a private 5G cellular network began in 2020, when port operators obtained a federal grant to explore autonomous external vehicles (meaning over-the-road trucks coming into the facilities from elsewhere, not on-site equipment). The trucking industry has been bullish on autonomous trucks for some time, and the timing seemed right with a national trucker shortage. Several states already allow intrastate autonomous trucks, and the kind of deployments planned for the port – things like trucks going from the port to a warehouse – are generally seen as further along the development curve than driverless passenger cars.
“So it got us thinking, what would ports need to do to prepare to interface with trucks that potentially don't have a human driving them?” said Mark Higgins, Operations Control Center Manager, The Port of Virginia. “We know this technology is coming and we better be ready for it.”
The Port’s tech infrastructure being ahead of the curve meant the port was well-situated for such a deployment. They started with over 50 miles of fiber optic cable installed in the facility. Cameras check vehicles for damage, and there are unmanned kiosks that dispense tickets for drivers to get in and out of the port. There are also automated cranes that can load and unload trucks and stack containers in around 37 minutes – much faster than the 90 or so it takes at a conventional port.
But the connectivity needs for the trucking project would test the resources of the existing network. Managers wanted to make sure they had a network that could handle the requirements like real-time command and control decisions to ensure the unmanned trucks could operate safely with manned vehicles working in the same area. Trust in the reliability of the network is a major factor, not only for operational efficiency, but also to keep workers safe, as safety use cases are a large component of success within the private 5G cellular network deployment.
“This thing has to be extremely robust,” said Ceci. “We have to trust the communications between our systems and that truck … We needed a private network where you can have that dedicated bandwidth.”
While the network is successfully running today, the trucking deployment program will begin in early 2024, and phase one will run, starting with trucks making well planned use-case moves to demonstrate the safety and viability of the technology. Eventually this will evolve to small, controlled groups of trucks moving in convoys from the ports to local warehouses. Ultimately deliveries may expand to a wider area.
Private 5G cellular network and dedicated spectrum powers intelligent operations
The backbone of the project is the network itself. Verizon Business, using Ericsson core and radio equipment, worked with the Port to build a private 5G ultra-wideband network. Currently the network is operating on high-band or millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, which offers extremely strong peak rates, low latency, and high capacity. This is especially critical for a port where avoiding interference is critical, so having dedicated spectrum is a must.
Although the trucking deployment drove the initial network installation, the overall benefits of cellular connectivity have port managers considering adding C-band, or mid-band spectrum to the network. Known as a the “sweet spot” of 5G, mid-band combines the capability of higher system capacity with massive MIMO (multiple input, multiple output), and strong, wide area coverage to enable reliable operations. This is especially important in a port environment that is operating basically 24/7, and unplanned downtime could have a cascading effect. C-band also has a wider coverage area compared to mmWave, meaning the port can offer coverage for more area with less equipment. For example, when Ericsson helped develop a network for a smart port in Rotterdam, the company replaced around 50 Wi-Fi access points with two radios and two antenna masts, increasing connection points from 30 to 35 access points to up to 300 connections per radio.
Cellular connectivity key to the smart port of the future
The Port of Virginia sees 5G private cellular networks as key to future proofing operations and keeping the ports ahead of the technology curve. As the mentality shifts from a pilot phase to how a 5G network can benefit ongoing operations, port officials are considering replacing existing Wi-Fi with private 5G.
“Our vision has evolved from the ‘science experiment phase’ of an autonomous truck experiment into something where we might replace all of our Wi-Fi with a 5G network,” said Ceci. “we think 5G would be a candidate to just be one homogeneous solution that does it all.”
In addition to the trucks, port leadership sees additional potential use cases for the 5G private network, including enhanced differential GPS, tablets in tough working conditions, and push-to-talk (PTT.) Port officials are in talks about expanding the network to include a second terminal in Virginia’s network, NIT, for push to talk/mission critical communications.
Adam Schipper notes, “Innovation is a skill, not a gift. And seeing the team at Port of Virginia put that skill into action as they execute their vision makes it easy to understand why they are once again leading the way as America’s most modern gateway.”
Ports are on the leading edge of a wave of digitalization for these important lynchpins of global trade. As ports become smarter, one key aspect behind emerging technologies will be private 5G cellular networks, leveraging speed, capacity, dedicated resources and reliability to enable the use cases of today – and tomorrow.
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