Automated cranes at BEST terminal

Towards Industry 4.0 in terminals: how do AI and 5G work?

Photo: BEST terminal

Many terminals use artificial intelligence (AI) in their operations. Simultaneously, 5G is gaining traction as a technological enabler for faster data sharing. How do these technologies work, and will they lead to a more sustainable operational future?

A few days ago, Union Pacific from the US announced the purchase of self-operating cranes that will work like “high-tech robots” in its intermodal terminal in Illinois. In the same way, the under-construction East West Gate terminal in Fenyestlitke, Hungary, will collaborate with Vodafone and Huawei to implement 5G in its operations that will enable the semi-autonomous use of cranes.

European terminals do not lag behind in the use of AI, says Alain Buyle from Camco Technologies. “Especially intermodal terminals are using it more and more, ” he explains. Kevin Cousaert from Navis agrees that “lots of terminals in Europe have automated equipment and the use of such technologies can provide enormous value and aid decision making”. Let’s get a better understanding of their characteristics and value.

How does AI and 5G alter terminal operations?

When it comes to using cranes, AI can prove a great assistant in automating some processes that might otherwise be time-consuming. “Cranes using AI deploy intelligent cameras that recognise the container numbers through digital processors and show where a container comes from and where it should go”, explains Buyle. Moreover, he adds that AI can be used to register the container number, run safety checks (seals, locks), and run a complete check on the train.

“In practice, AI is used in the control room to recommend a lane change in the crane’s deployment to match its forecasted demand better. Staff can direct the crane digitally to move to the new location, reducing the need for radio communication,” highlights Coursaert. It’s all about data sharing and creating automated paths for moving the containers by cranes.

Here is where 5G enters the picture. Even though it is not very widespread in Europe, and even if 4G can provide substantial network connections for terminal operations, 5G can offer more speed. Practically 5G can help in creating a secure internet terminal network for fast and safe data sharing.

Do AI and 5G require each other?

“Much like 4G ushered video streaming to our mobile devices – we see 5G bringing terminal benefits beyond the descriptive analytics of digital twins,” describes Cousaert. In simple words, in cases where terminals use the digital twin concept to analyse their equipment deployment against real-time demands, 5G can prove valuable.
Is it a prerequisite, though, for using AI? Not really, since as Buyle narrates, “4G is still perfect for transmitting data and using fibre cable connections are a safer option since they provide stable communications.

Can they lead to completely automated procedures?

“There are terminals that are already entirely automated, for instance in China,” says Buyle. AI is key in a terminal because there is no automation without it, he continues. However, there is a whole spectrum of automation. He adds that there is light or heavy automation, and it depends on how far a terminal wants to invest in new technologies.

Kevin Cousaert notes that “it’s possible to reach fully automated operations”. However, it needs more time and testing to reach this point to avoid potential implementation issues. It is essential to mention that the timeframe to reach this stage is not that broad, and it does not mean that using these new technologies will prove more costly than traditional operations.

How safe can operations be?

“It’s all about the cameras’ quality,” underlines Buyle. If terminals use the best possible equipment on their cranes, then operations can be safe and accurate, reaching 99 per cent rates. Cousaert shares the same opinion. Everything depends on the cranes’ subsystems, for instance, Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging). “With the new technologies used, terminals can avoid problems of the past related to signal shadowing and faraday cage effects when streaming data in real-time”.

“Nevertheless, with this new data reality, terminals often need to upskill their workforce to take advantage of these new and emerging technologies,” says Cousaert. Specifically, quality equipment and well-trained staff make the difference when talking about the accuracy and safety of automated operations.

Are automated cranes more sustainable?

In this case, both Kevin Cousaert and Alain Buyle have a consensus. “By electrifying the cranes to make them emissionless, and using AI, operations become efficient and fully environmentally friendly,” narrates Cousaert.

“Given that cranes use electric power and that the ethernet powers cameras, then the whole concept is fully sustainable,” agrees Buyle. Apart from that, he firmly believes that investing in such technologies is also a sustainable strategy for terminals in general. “Using AI and automated cranes in your terminal means that you make a long-term investment that will not require constant changes in the future,” he concludes.

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Author: Nikos Papatolios

Nikos Papatolios is editor of, the online magazine for rail freight professionals.

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