Digital Transformation Hub

Dec 4 2019 5 mins

Will 5G Change Logistics and Ports?

     The conference and summit circuit for Singapore in November focusses on technology and how it will forever change the way we conduct our lives. With the Smart Maritime Network summit happening late November in Singapore, I note that the debate has shifted to the concept and development of Smart technology. This is an important discussion to have, particularly as Singapore’s TUAS port progresses towards being a transhipment Smart Port.

5G changes logistics and port management

It is interesting that to date, there has not been much said about the impact of 5G on smart port development, particularly as to how it will change the shape of shipping, logistics, supply chain and production. Whilst 5G gets identified with the exotic applications such as those associated with Virtual Reality and game applications of the new technology, political and business leaders debate and argue cyber-security, IP and privacy concerns.

This debate has taken on a new urgency, particularly the role of Huawei and China’s progress in the application of 5G to area’s outside of the gaming world. In a sense, the USA has stirred up paranoia about privacy issues and cybersecurity as a reason to delay the implementation of 5G. It can be argued that this has been a political tool to give the USA time to play catch up to other countries that are ahead of the game. It is ironic that the USA has used issues such as privacy to stir up fears, when in fact, users of IT / smartphones and social networks have already given up their privacy to software programs and administrators. Just consider how many now allow face recognition software to access their smartphones – these don’t just disappear but sit nicely in a data cyber-warehouse.

What is 5G and why does it change logistics and port management?

The best way to describe it is that it moves our world closer to harnessing the Internet of Things (IoT). It is an enabling technology that not only connects people but objects – the things we own. Current port / logistics systems are limited in that they rely on data / optic cable for connectivity as 4G does not have the band width or capacity to carry the level of data required to drive the likes of automation. Consider the three essential elements that gives 5G an advantage, namely: Data Density, transfer speeds and latency. In simple terms, 5G can support a million sensor devices per square kilometre as opposed to 4G’s 100, 000 devices. Furthermore, it transfers data (latency) between devices at 1 millisecond, with 4G at 50 milliseconds. The greatest advantage is that it connects machine to machine via data and visual sensors that can assist in smart decision making.

In the logistics world, it now allows companies to deal with the 100 – 120 million data points from different sources daily. These sources include ports, vessel movements, containers etc. Importantly, in an ultra-dense shipboard environment, 5G extends connectivity to thousands of sensors within a confined area. With the proliferation of base stations, it enables seamless ship-land communication that optimises port operations, such as offloading / onloading vessels.

Furthermore, it allows freight companies to have complete visibility of their cargo. By allowing real time monitoring of goods in transit it can remotely manage them. It not only gives details as to location, but can give updates on temperature, humidity, “g” forces, etc. of goods in transit. The net result is an optimised supply chain as the data allows carriers to streamline complex intermodal processes. By always being “on” it will give accurate data to substantiate responsibility for the cargo and ownership, particularly when corrective action needs to be taken or insurance claims are made.

Examples of 5G Applications

Fortunately, ports / authorities have recognised the role of 5G in progressing true smart ports that utilises IoT for automation and augmented reality applications to improve efficiency along logistics supply chain and port operations. China has taken a leading role in this, evidenced by it rolling out of 200,000 5G base stations that connect via satellite communications.

Rather than describe what 5G can do, it is best to look at a couple of examples of what is currently being done in this space. Whilst there are a number, I will look at some in China as well as what Singapore is doing as this offers Singapore great opportunity to build software applications for their maritime trade but also to act as a global host of data cyber warehouses.


China is leveraging 5G to foster development of what they call intelligent port centralisation particularly as it seeks to implement automated container terminals to reduce costs and improve efficiency. A smart port requires low latency, large bandwidth and high reliability, all of which is offered by 5G. They are currently pursuing this in the ports of Xiamen, Qingdao and the Yangshan deep water port in Shanghai, with Qingdao being the first to apply 5G technology to port operations.

In the case of Qingdao, they have succeeded in reducing labour costs by 70% through using the centralisation model. An example is the automated ship to shore lift of a container over a 5G connection from a remote-control centre. The network accesses data and information from not just IoT sensors on the container but also from 30 HD cameras that send visual images via control data PLC. This can only be done because 5G gives real time visibility and low latency.


The PSA is currently progressing tele-remote-controlled equipment coupled with automated guided vehicles. 5G allows reliable ship to shore communication and is the start of progressing autonomous ships within Singapore waters. Not only will this improve vessel safety in Singapore waters, but improves efficiency in port utilisation thereby reducing costs. The types of efficiency are reducing wharf time due to improved matching vessels arrival with equipment for speedier offload and onloading of vessels.

Going Forward

Whilst there are several other ports that are currently looking at 5G applications to better connect intermodal cargo carriers, China has already taken the next step forward by announcing that it has formed two new teams to research and study 6G. This comes on the back of the formation of the Smart Port Innovation Lab of China Merchants Group that is taking the construction of 5G smart ports in the likes of Guangdong and Wuhan. This is the forerunner for the development of an intelligent logistics platform that connects small and medium sized inland ports as part of China’s digital silk road. It is being designed to enhance core capabilities of ports and develop the port sector within BRI countries.

Singapore, with its advanced IT capability has a unique opportunity to not only progress 5G applications in the maritime sector, but to collaborate with China in taking the next step into 6G.

About the Author

CEO at Wheeler Management Consulting Pty Ltd t/a ASIA PACIFIC CONNEX.
An executive with global experience, Author on China / Asia geopolitics, Doctoral Candidate, Public Speaker, and Mentor.


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