3 ways ports are becoming more automated

3 ways ports are becoming more automated

Automated ports are becoming more and more common. From Rotterdam to Los Angeles, ports are using autonomous technology to unload cargo from ships, move it around the shipping yard and load it onto trucks. Ports are even incorporating gate automation into their operations, allowing truck drivers hauling away cargo to have their loads inspected quickly and efficiently.

At Out2Sea, we know that this trend is being driven by higher container shipping volumes and a desire to reduce costs. Many ports have no way to expand and therefore must meet these higher cargo volumes by increasing productivity.

While labor unions representing longshoremen are rightfully concerned about a future that includes automated ports, we wanted to make sure merchant mariners are informed about the various ways automation is changing the shipping industry.


Ship-to-shore cranes are slowly becoming automated in ports around the world.

Automated cranes

Cranes are used at ports for unloading ships and stacking cargo. The cranes that unload ships are often referred to as ship-to-shore cranes. In recent years, ports have had to adapt to larger vessels of over 18,000 TEU. These vessels require lengthier unloading times, partly because cranes have to do more work. Automated ship-to-shore cranes do not require a human operator on the crane itself, but rather in a separate control room. With the operator’s assistance, the cranes work by remote control. Typical features include autonomous ship profiling software and automatic “handing-off” of cargo.

A couple steps down the line, stacking cranes will take over. Automated ports have begun to incorporate robotic stacking cranes that lift containers and load them into neat stacks, where they wait for trucks to arrive. Once a truck is ready to take on a load, these cranes will pick a box from the top of the stack and carry it to a waiting vehicle.

Robotic cargo haulers

What happens to a container as soon as it’s unloaded from the ship? Before it can be handled by a stacking crane, another robot needs to transport it to the right location. An eight-wheeled cargo hauling robot assumes this responsibility at automated port terminals. At many ports, including Los Angeles and Long Beach, these four-story-high robots move about the shipping yard, each one guided by a computer system that knows where every single container belongs.

Robotic cargo haulers lift containers and place them in designated locations, where they wait for a stacking crane to pick them up and place them on a truck.

Gate automation

Before carrying their cargo away from the port, each truck’s load has to be inspected for damage, and the truck, as well as the driver, need to be identified. Robotic identification systems can get these jobs done quickly.

In many locations, automated gates have been around for much longer than robotic cargo haulers or autonomous cranes. Automated ports have benefitted from wonderful economies of scale, thanks to these gates. With most automated gate systems, drivers are able to check in, undergo a brief inspection, then check out, all without getting out of the cab. Automatic driver identification and high-resolution damage inspection add greater accuracy to the overall task of checking cargo out of the port.

The world of maritime shipping is changing, and ports are constantly trying to adapt. Automated ports will only become more common with time, so mariners need to stay on top of this trend!

Get the inside scoop on ports around the world by asking your fellow mariners over on our discussion board!   

Scroll Up