| Written by Constance Stickler

In recent years and decades, the global logistics industry has seen a shift towards automation in container terminal operations. Advancing technologies and the demand for efficient and sustainable supply chain solutions are leading port terminals to increasingly rely on automated solutions that optimise operations, improve productivity and increase competitiveness. A variety of solutions are already in the starting blocks to begin their triumphal march through the world's ports in the next few years.
Port Terminal

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Ports On Their Way to Automation

Historically, terminals have played a central role in maritime trade for thousands of years, dating back to ancient civilisations where natural harbours served as trade hubs. One of the first known ports is Wadi al-Jarf on the Red Sea coast of Egypt, which was connected to the nearby pyramid construction site of Khufu (Cheops) and had storage facilities. The Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans built extensive maritime networks and port cities along the Mediterranean coasts.

For a very long time, ports have relied heavily on manual labour and a large team of workers to carry out the various cargo handling and port operations tasks:


Unloading and Loading

Cargo was loaded off and onboard using cranes, hooks and other lifting equipment. Loading onto the means of transport available for domestic purposes was also carried out using the same manual methods. Of course, the first containers that appeared at the end of the 1950s had to have more powerful cranes, but the processes still required a lot of personnel and were often slow and labour-intensive.

Cargo Storage

Where cargo or which container was stored or stacked had to be recorded manually and stored in a way that could be found again for further transport or collection.

Inventory Management

Tracking the location and status of cargo in port was a manual process, relying on paper-based systems and, later, simple electronic spreadsheets. Employees manually recorded container movements, arrivals, departures and storage locations, often leading to errors, inconsistencies and inefficiencies.

Terminal Planning and Operations

Coordinating ship arrivals, berth schedules, and cargo movements within the port required manual planning by terminal operators. Of course, this also included exchanges with shipping companies, freight forwarders and customers using the means of communication available at the time.

Security and Security Controls

Inspections and safety checks were also carried out manually. Workers visually inspected the cargo and then the containers for signs of damage, tampering or hazardous materials, although technical support to identify potential risks was late and limited.

In the past, many operators had used paper systems and wall maps to monitor container movements. With the rapid increase in the number of containers handled (almost 700% from 1990 to 2008), this was no longer possible. New, more efficient programs, systems and equipment were needed.

Since the end of the 1980s, a number of information systems have been developed to coordinate the planning and management of container and equipment movements in this complex business area. 

Terminal Operation Systems (TOS) were intended for ship and yard planning. Still, as container volumes, ships, and terminal sizes grew, they also needed to be used for gate planning, equipment control, yard placement and personnel management.

The introduction of automation in port terminal operations has revolutionised the industry and significantly upgraded the processes' efficiency, safety and reliability. Today, advanced terminal automation techniques have replaced the manual tasks described above with widespread improvements in productivity, accuracy and cost-effectiveness:


A Snapshot of Today's Automation Level at Port Terminals

The port terminal industry faces numerous challenges, some of which have been apparent for some time and some only recently. They range from overload and capacity bottlenecks to periods of sudden reduced capacity utilisation to environmental concerns and labour disputes.

In response, port operators are increasingly turning to digitalisation and automation to increase efficiency, improve safety, and reduce environmental impact.

Currently, the level of automation in container ports still varies significantly and depends heavily on factors such as location, size, investment opportunities and regulatory environment. While some ports have adopted automation extensively, others are still in the early stages of adopting automated technologies.


Mainly manual ports

Many ports, especially smaller ones, still rely primarily on manual labour for container handling. In these ports, conventional cranes, forklifts and manual labour are used to load and unload containers, stack and transport cargo within the terminal. In specific contexts, these terminals can still be efficient and cost-effective, particularly in regions with lower labour costs or lower infrastructure investments.

Partially and semi-automated ports

Both use automated processes and manual work to varying degrees. For example, container handling itself and storage space management are often handled or supported by automation. At the same time, other tasks such as customs clearance, monitoring and administration still rely heavily on human operators.

Fully automated ports

In some terminals, almost all operations, including container handling, stacking and quay crane operations, are carried out by automated systems without direct human intervention. These ports often feature advanced technologies such as Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), Automated Stacking Cranes (ASCs) and Automated Quay Cranes (AQCs). Examples of fully automated ports include the Maasvlakte II terminal in the Port of Rotterdam and the APM Terminals facility in Maasvlakte, Netherlands.


Many of the technologies mentioned in the next section are already being used in a more or less elaborated form. In the next few years, we will be able to experience their further development and maturation, as well as the merging of individual technologies.


Automation Trends for Tomorrow's Port Terminals

Port automation is THE great challenge and opportunity in the constantly and ever-developing maritime logistics. Its advanced technologies and sustainability practices will transform the traditional container handling processes.

By eliminating more and more time-consuming and error-prone human interventions, the frequency of container moves is significantly increased, and safety is improved.


Remote Monitoring and Operations

Terminal operators can monitor and remotely control critical operations and information (e.g., power supply and temperatures in reefers) from central control centres. This means fewer staffing requirements and increased safety for yard personnel. 

Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT enables the seamless integration of physical assets, sensors and communication technology, creating a connected and intelligent terminal environment.

Embedded IoT sensors collect data about device performance, usage patterns, and environmental conditions to enable predictive maintenance strategies. By analysing this data in real-time, terminal operators can predict equipment failures, identify potential maintenance issues, and plan maintenance activities before costly failures occur.

This technology is currently used to track containers, cranes, container handling equipment (CHE), and other equipment and record their location, status, and condition in real-time. The integrity of the cargo in the containers is also monitored by sensors monitoring important parameters such as temperature, humidity, etc.

The future will bring even more extensive interconnected sensor networks connecting infrastructure, environmental systems and personnel. Incorporating AI and machine learning will further refine analytics and predictive statements. The use of robotic technology will increase the autonomy factor.

Open standards and industry-wide collaborations will facilitate greater interoperability and standardisation of IoT devices, thereby facilitating seamless integration and data exchange between different IoT systems and stakeholders.

5G Technology

Real-time communication is an essential factor in ongoing operations, and 5G technology takes this to a new level with ultra-fast speeds and low latency. 

5 G's reliability ensures that the terminal functions as a perfectly coordinated ecosystem. However, this technology goes one step further and enables, for example, the use of intelligent sensors and the transmission of the data they collect beyond the boundaries of the terminal; an example is remote reefer monitoring.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

The development of automated port terminals is significantly supported by artificial intelligence. Sophisticated algorithms, machine learning, and predictive analyses enable an unimagined level of efficiency. Estimating container arrivals, optimising container moves and stacking patterns, and predictive maintenance will further streamline logistics processes and reduce downtime.


Cybersecurity is one of the major issues that all industries are grappling with. More and more people rely on decentralised and immutable technologies such as blockchain, which reduces the risk of fraud. The transparency of blockchain transactions promotes trust among users as their integrity can be independently verified. Self-executing "smart contracts" automate agreements and speed up transactions.


Drones in the air and water are revolutionising monitoring and maintenance processes. Equipped with high-resolution cameras, they monitor terminal facilities, infrastructure, and equipment, especially in difficult-to-access or dangerous environments.

If drones are also equipped with thermal imaging cameras, they can detect heat signatures and thus detect fires or overheated devices at an early stage.

In emergencies, drones are used for quick assessment and response. They provide a situation overview and essential information to emergency responders and decision-makers.

Of course, these devices can also monitor air and water quality, noise levels, and other environmental parameters, helping to make the port's sustainability efforts a success.


Automated Stacking Cranes (ASC) are among the best-known examples of robotics in port terminals. They can autonomously lift, move, and stack containers in the yard using sensors, actuators, and control systems.

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) are autonomous, driverless vehicles that transport containers within the terminal on predefined routes. They are equipped with sensors, cameras and laser guidance systems.

The capabilities and applications in robotics will continue to grow. Popular technologies such as AI and machine learning, as well as swarm robotics techniques, are being integrated to improve robotic systems' autonomy, adaptability, and collaboration.

Automated Gates

Gate operation will be automated. Gate systems equipped with license plate recognition and biometric technologies enable automated entry and exit processes that reduce congestion and contribute to safety and security. 

This applies not only to access to the terminal itself but also to access to the various zones within. In addition to the gate barriers, traffic lights and signal lights can also be optimised.

Smart Containers

Smart containers themselves have various sensors, communication devices, and tracking technologies that enable them to collect and transmit data about their location, condition, and contents in real-time.

In addition, security features such as tamper-evident seals, electronic locks, or burglar alarm systems may also be included to protect the cargo from theft, tampering or unauthorised access during transport.

Modularity and Scalability

The trend is towards terminal designs that are modular and scalable. This promotes their flexibility and adaptability. Many operators invest in systems that can be easily expanded or reconfigured in order to be able to react flexibly to changing requirements, for instance fluctuating container volumes. 

Since different terminals have specific operational needs and requirements, an off-the-shelf solution is usually not effective. Modular components allow operators to combine different modules to create solutions tailored to their individual workflows, processes, and infrastructure constraints.

Another advantage of such solutions is that capital expenditure can be optimised by allowing investments to be made in gradual upgrades and expansions as needed rather than upfront in large infrastructure projects.


With increasing automation, cybersecurity is paramount to protect critical infrastructure, sensitive data and business continuity from cyber threats. Comprehensive risk assessments are essential for the operation of networked systems in order to identify and combat vulnerabilities and risks.

The security policies and procedures established to protect against unauthorised access, data breaches and network intrusions must be adhered to without exception. This may include the use of firewalls, intrusion detection systems (IDS), intrusion prevention systems (IPS), virtual private networks (VPNs), and network segmentation.


One of the most urgent challenges of our time is to convert our daily actions to be as sustainable as possible. Some automation solutions have exactly this goal, while for others, it is a bonus result.

Automated environmental monitoring and reporting systems, such as IoT sensors and systems that measure environmental parameters such as air quality, noise levels, and water quality in container terminals, are directly aimed at environmental sustainability. Real-time data collection and analysis allow you to quickly identify and mitigate environmental risks, comply with regulations, and improve environmental performance.

All automation measures aimed at greater efficiency and optimising container movements reduce the need for working hours, workforce, fuel or energy, and kilometres travelled (keyword: tyre wear). Device monitoring systems can report problems such as insufficient tyre pressure or improper filling levels (keyword: leaks) as soon as they occur, thus preventing the leakage of environmentally hazardous fluids.

By adopting these automation trends, port terminals can reduce their environmental footprint, increase operational resilience and contribute to a more sustainable future for the maritime industry and the planet.

Cooperative Automation

Port staff must embrace automation, as successful implementation relies heavily on collaboration, trust, and commitment. By involving employees in the planning and implementation process and demonstrating how automation augments their work rather than replacing it, companies can help employees understand the benefits and purpose of automation.

Training and education should start as early as possible, if possible, while old systems are still being used, in order to achieve a gradual familiarisation effect. Addressing concerns and emphasising the importance of human expertise helps build trust in the new solutions. It should also be clearly communicated that possible unforeseen challenges may need to be overcome together.

Like all disruptive events in history, the ongoing automation of port terminals will be challenging, but ultimately, this development should benefit everyone.



Some of the most important technologies briefly explained:

Position Detection System (PDS)

The Position Detection System (PDS) is used to accurately identify the position of containers, equipment and vehicles within the terminal. PDS typically uses a combination of sensors, communication networks, and algorithms to achieve precise positioning and tracking.

PDS solutions are optimised for highly accurate positioning determination within a limited area. They are typically based on a combination of sensor technologies such as optical sensors, laser scanners, RFID tags, or ultrasonic sensors. Methods such as triangulation, trilateration, and other algorithms are also used.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

RFID tags and transponders are used to track containers, equipment, and vehicles within the terminal. They provide real-time visibility and help automate processes, such as container identification, tracking, and inventory management.

Real-Time Locating System (RTLS)

RTLS is a comprehensive system designed to provide real-time location information for various assets or personnel within a facility or across multiple locations. It can be used for asset tracking, workforce monitoring, security, inventory management, and workflow optimisation.

The system uses various technologies such as GPS, Wi-Fi, UWB (Ultra-Wideband), RFID or Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). RTLS often utilises multiple sensors and communication nodes distributed throughout the facility to provide accurate and continuous location updates.

Tags and Transponders

Both tags and transponders are electronic devices used for identification, tracking and communication. However, they differ in their functionality and capabilities:

Passive tags do not have their own power source and rely on the energy transmitted by a reader to operate. When a reader sends out a radio signal, the passive tag absorbs the signal's energy and uses it to transmit its stored information back to the reader. Passive tags are typically smaller, lighter and less expensive.

Active tags, on the other hand, have their own power source (e.g. a battery) and can therefore transmit signals independently. They are able to transmit signals over greater distances and can be read faster than passive tags.

Both types of tags are primarily used in inventory management, asset tracking, access control, and supply chain logistics. They are often attached to objects (products, containers, vehicles) or people to enable automatic identification and tracking.

Transponders, on the other hand, are more advanced devices that not only transmit data but also receive and respond to signals from readers. This means they can communicate bidirectionally, enabling more interactive and dynamic interactions. They also have their own power source.

They are widely used for real-time data transmission, remote monitoring and control in environments where continuous communication between assets and a central system is required, such as vehicle tracking, asset management, telemetry systems and industrial automation.

Tags and transponders both typically contain a unique identifier (such as a serial number or barcode) associated with a specific object or asset. When a reading device detects a tag within its range, this is read out together with other data or transmitted to the transponder together with sensor values, location information or status updates.



It is a long way from the beginnings of maritime trade in ancient cultures to modern automated ports. After a long run-up, automation is gaining momentum. With the rise of digitalisation, port-process automation also began, moving away from paper-based logging towards IT-supported systems that record an immense amount of data. The further expansion of data collection, its analysis and translation into optimised action through modern technologies such as AI or blockchain, which are still in their adolescent stages of development, will revolutionise the entire logistics industry and, thus, the port terminal (read more about container yard operations at TTI Algeciras).

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