Positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) orbs guide 50-ton robots carrying containers at the Ports of Auckland.

In a world-exclusive report, GPS World visited with officials at the Ports of Auckland, New Zealand, and the Australian company Locata to reveal a revolutionary port automation system. Locata’s navigation system could change the way containers are handled around the globe, and open the floodgates for next-generation automation of Critical National Infrastructure sites.

Global shipping lines, ports and container terminals are at the heart of the immense, multi-trillion-dollar global logistics market, and ports are classed as critical infrastructure in many nations.

Much of the world’s port infrastructure is old, has no space to expand, and strains at the seams as it faces the reality of handing larger cargo volumes and massive new container ships —some with more than 22,000 containers on board. Efficiently managing the huge spike in container moves caused by the arrival of these gigantic new vessels is a critical requirement for container terminals and their logistics chains, and the problem will only become more acute.

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Once arriving at port, container vessels are offloaded by ship-to-shore (STS) cranes. (Photo: bfk92/E+/Getty Images)

Once arriving at port, container vessels are offloaded by ship-to-shore (STS) cranes. (Photo: bfk92/E+/Getty Images)

Automating operations at ports and intermodal hubs to accelerate their throughput is an obvious solution. “Automate or die” is now an accepted industry mantra, and indeed a small number of terminals around the world have been automated in the past. Early attempts at using GPS for positioning autonomous machines promptly fizzled, however. A chaotic environment of gigantic moving metal machines and constantly changing metal container stacks creates insurmountable blockage and multipath position errors. The environment makes it impossible to guarantee ultra-reliable, centimeter-level GNSS positioning.

In the past, the industry had to resort to providing basic-level positioning by drilling holes to install (with no exaggeration) between 50,000 and 500,000 RFID transponders or magnets in the port’s pavement. This was extremely tedious and labor intensive, and came with serious downsides. The transponders do not work well for differing machine sizes because they usually require reader antennas, the size of two regular house doors, under the machine. Furthermore, the drilling deteriorates the pavement — the ports’ most valuable asset.

The biggest problem, however, was that for a fully operational site like Auckland — known as brownfields in the industry — the port often would have to be closed for years to allow the transponders and pavement to be installed. Such a shutdown isn’t feasible for most operating ports; hence, brown-fields were considered next-to-impossible to automate.

Although this may seem to be less of an issue for new greenfields ports (those built from scratch), buried transponders essentially lock in the mobility and usage patterns for any port, requiring another shutdown to make changes. In all, the logistics industry and its machine manufacturers urgently need a viable, flexible, reliable positioning solution for terminal automation — and soon.

A New Solution

It’s now been revealed that a new solution for this urgent requirement had, in fact, been in stealth mode development for many years. Due to commercial competitive considerations, all the work had taken place under the radar and without publicity. Konecranes, the largest port machine manufacturer, had been developing fully autonomous straddle carriers specifically to address this market, in partnership with Australian company Locata Corporation.

This totally new automation system is being rolled out now at multiple terminals around the world. The first port to emerge with this trailblazing capability is the Ports of Auckland.

Locata’s ground-based GNSS-like positioning system is changing the game for logistics terminals. The Ports of Auckland is the first of many ports and logistics hubs around the globe currently operating or installing Locata (see Figure 1). In the process, the port is delivering the global logistics industry a raft of world-first capabilities.

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Figure 1. The Ports of Auckland covers 140 acres at the doorstep of Auckland’s central business district. The outline shows the approximate coverage of the LocataNet local positioning system (landside only). (Photo: Ross Clark/Ports of Auckland)

Figure 1. The Ports of Auckland covers 140 acres at the doorstep of Auckland’s central business district. The outline shows the approximate coverage of the LocataNet local positioning system (landside only). (Photo: Ross Clark/Ports of Auckland)

Partners on this project — the government owners of the Ports of Auckland; its system supplier Konecranes; and Locata — are breaking new ground and in the process opening the floodgates for next-generation machine automation of critical national infrastructure sites.

Groundbreaking Capabilities

Living on an island means every-day items are delivered via cargo ships. That’s certainly the case in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, which has a harbor on the Pacific Ocean.

The Ports of Auckland is the largest terminal for commercial freight that arrives in New Zealand. Its 140-acre international trade port is in the heart of the city and surrounded by water, so expansion by reclaiming land is out of the question, even as the country continues to grow.

With this situation, the port’s operator was faced with the seemingly impossible: double the handling capacity of the port in a few years without reclaiming any more land. They turned to automation and cutting-edge technology to find a solution.

Everything that arrives at the port is in a standardized shipping container. The port’s plot of land is usually crammed with the maximum number of containers it can hold. The Ports of Auckland had to seek out automation that increases the terminal’s capacity by stacking containers higher, stacking them close together, and generally making things move faster and more efficiently.

For inbound cargo, once a container is unlocked from its ships, ship-to-shore (STS) cranes unload them to ground level. Straddle carriers then lift and move each container to a ground-level holding area, where it is stored and then transferred to a truck or a train that will deliver it to its ultimate destination.

Export cargo arrives at the port via truck or train, and the straddle carriers handle them through the port’s storage areas to be loaded onto a ship.

The port also handles trans-shipments; containers that arrive via a ship destined to be loaded onto another ship. These handling processes are repeated over and over around the clock, operating pre-automation at a capacity of around 900,000 containers per year.

Straddle carriers are the workhorses of the operation, moving containers within the port. Manual straddles are operated by trained onboard drivers and can stack containers two high. In a traditional manual environment, a driver’s time is divided between tasks that require skill such as picking up a container from the STS crane, or on repetitive work — like organizing containers for efficient loading onto ships, trains and trucks — which are tasks that can readily be automated.

By adding automation, the Ports of Auckland created a mix of manual and automated straddles working together at the terminal. Drivers are assigned the more interesting and skillful tasks, while the automated robotic straddles carry out the repetitive, “boring” tasks.

“Very soon, when the automation system is fully implemented, our straddle carrier fleet will consist of 27 Konecranes Fully-Automated Straddle Carriers (A-STRAD), and 24 manned straddle carriers,” said Ross Clarke, program manager of Auckland’s Port Automation Project. “This interaction of manned and automated machines, without any physical infrastructure separating them, is a world first.”

The A-STRADs are bigger than the manual straddles. The 50-ton, four-story-high machines can move 40-foot containers weighing 50 tons around the port at up to 30 kilometers per hour. Each can stack containers up to three high and closer together.

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Five fully autonomous Konecranes A-STRADs at work in the Ports of Auckland. The Locata VRay Orb antennas can be seen at the top of each straddle. (Photo: Photo: Ross Clark/Ports of Auckland)

Five fully autonomous Konecranes A-STRADs at work in the Ports of Auckland. The Locata VRay Orb antennas can be seen at the top of each straddle. (Photo: Photo: Ross Clark/Ports of Auckland)

With the new automated system, the Ports of Auckland will almost double the capacity of the terminal to 1.7 million containers per year once automation is fully implemented in early 2021.

The Ports of Auckland chose Konecranes to supply the fully-autonomous straddle carriers. With no cab, A-STRADs are uniquely identifiable as autonomous. A-STRADs can drive around the port, lifting and moving containers in the same way as their manual predecessors, using their spreader and assisted by the onboard sensors. A critical difference is how they position themselves and how they safely operate in an environment with many other objects, manual straddles, A-STRADs and container stacks.

At the heart of this capability is the Locata local positioning system. It allows A-STRADs to reliably position themselves to centimeter-level accuracy throughout the terminal work area. Every A-STRAD has two Locata antennas, each attached to a Locata Rover receiver, that enable an A-STRAD to accurately determine its position and orientation.

Driver Assistance. Both the A-STRADs and the manual straddles at the Ports of Auckland are positioned using Locata technology. The manned straddle carriers are fitted with a driver-assistance system, which is also positioned by Locata, so their operations can be monitored and coordinated in lock-step with autonomous A-STRADs.

“The driver assistance system operates a lot like the auto-parking system in a car,” Clarke said. “When manned straddles are near the interchange area where they interact with A-STRADs, operators change to driver-assist mode and can take their hands off the steering wheel, allowing the system to autonomously guide the straddle carrier to the correct stack location with an accuracy of +/–3 cm.”

Roots of a New Strategy

The groundbreaking positioning system has been in the works for several decades.

“Locata has been working on this ‘terrestrial replica of GNSS’ capability for 25 years,” Locata CEO Nunzio Gambale told GPS World. “It didn’t spring up one day just because co-founder David Small and I thought, hey, we’d like to replace the GPS satellites.

“Our driving vision has been to provide accurate performance in myriad environments where we always knew GNSS was going to fail to deliver,” Gambale continued. “Importantly, what you see today is not just ‘a lab experiment’ or a prototype test system. It’s operationally deployed, enabling some of the most demanding positioning applications on Earth. Our team has been laser-focused on developing real technology which improves on GPS-like positioning, and delivering solid solutions for real-world problems modern applications now face.”

The Locata System

Two LocataLite transmitter antennas, installed 23 meters up a light pole, provide high-accuracy positioning coverage over part of the Ports of Auckland. (photo: Photo: David Small/Locata)

Two LocataLite transmitter antennas, installed 23 meters up a light pole, provide high-accuracy positioning coverage over part of the Ports of Auckland. (photo: Photo: David Small/Locata)

LocataLites. Locata is a local positioning system that uses a network of synchronized transmitters, known as LocataLites, installed in and around the port to cover all straddle work areas. The LocataLites work like miniature GPS satellites, transmitting GPS-like signals using two frequencies in the 2.4-GHz ISM band.

LocataLites are strategically installed and configured to deliver reliable centimeter-level accuracy, with particular attention paid to the geometry available from the network when the installation layout is designed. This LocataLite network (called a LocataNet) enables the equipment on each straddle carrier to trilaterate its position using a method similar to GNSS positioning.

Locata technology is built upon two critical proprietary capabilities developed and perfected over many years: TimeLoc and multipath mitigation. To date, Locata has been granted more than 160 patents on these core advances.

Sub-Nanosecond TimeLoc. First, LocataLites use their own broadcast signals to time synchronize with each other using a proprietary technology called TimeLoc. This allows all the LocataLites in a LocataNet to time synchronize with each other to sub-nanosecond levels without requiring atomic clocks.

Mutipath Mitigation. Second, Locata’s proprietary multipath mitigation technology enables Locata receivers to correctly track direct signals, even in an environment filled with reflected signals. Multipath is the main reason GNSS can’t deliver the accuracy and reliability required at a port.

Locata’s multipath mitigation technology has two components: the Locata receiver and the VRay Orb antenna.

Locata receivers. The receivers incorporate a proprietary signal-processing technique, correlator beamforming (CBF), which delivers beam-forming capability comparable to advanced phased-array antennas.CBF allows the Locata receiver to combine signal samples from its multiple antenna elements to form virtual “beams,” and any signal outside of a given virtual beam is ignored.

Unlike traditional phased arrays, however, the Locata CBF system is markedly less complex and orders of magnitude less expensive. CBF uses only one RF front end, yet it can form millions of individually-steered beams per second.

VRay Orbs. The straddle carriers at the Ports of Auckland are the first commercial operating deployment of Locata’s VRay Orb antennas, with two orbs atop every A-STRAD as well as the manual straddles (Opening Photo).

A row of Locata VRay Orb60 antennas atop Konecranes A-STRAD machines stretch into the distance toward Auckland’s business district. (Photo: David Small/Locata)

A row of Locata VRay Orb60 antennas atop Konecranes A-STRAD machines stretch into the distance toward Auckland’s business district. (Photo: David Small/Locata)

Bespoke Positioning

The placement of LocataLite positioning transmitters on any site is entirely within the control of the LocataNet designer. “Our partners can place them where they want, in as high a density as they want, and as accurately as they need to get their job done,” Gambale said. “The LocataNet delivers rock-solid, super-reliable positioning in environments where that wasn’t possible before.”

With GNSS, users have no control over the geometry of the satellites in view. “That’s a huge problem in many of these high-accuracy applications because it can greatly affect your DOP [dilution of precision] geometry,” he added. “Engineers trying to rely on GNSS can see huge variability — or complete failure — in a machine’s position. Unreliable positioning is not acceptable when an enterprise is relying on 50-ton autonomous machines, doing critical work that you cannot afford to stop.”

According to Clarke, “Locata is well-suited to our requirements as it offers high precision, high resistance to interference, and high reliability.”

Breakthroughs at the Port

Locata’s enabling technology has brought multiple breakthrough advantages to terminal automation. Critical among them is the ability to automate a terminal while in full operation.

“Because our container terminal is working at high utilization, with no spare space to operate, we are deploying the automation in two phases,” Clarke said. “The first phase started commercial operations in August 2020, and we have now handled more than 35 ships using the automated system. The next phase, with the entire terminal running fully operational automation, is scheduled to enter service in early April 2021.”

Flexibility. The new system also provides extreme flexibility to alter the layout of operations in real time, something never possible with transponders embedded in the ground. A-STRADs drive around using a digital map. With Locata, this map can be changed as often as needed without having to change anything in the infrastructure.

Reduced Wear and Tear. Before automation, line markings on the pavement guided operators on paths and in storage areas. While this kept operations orderly, following the marked lines caused ruts in the pavement that eventually require costly and time-consuming repairs.

“With A-STRAD positioning being so precise and repeatable, this accuracy could have caused serious ruts and also become a problem,” Clarke said. “With Locata and the ‘invisible’ digital pavement markings, we came up with a cool solution to this that we call ‘stack shuffling.’ We shift the digital drive paths and storage plots over time so that wear and tear on the pavement is spread more evenly, requiring fewer repairs to the tarmac.”

The shuffling is imperceptible to a human, but the A-STRADs are spreading the wear across the entire tarmac and greatly extending the service life of the terminal surface, according to Clarke.

Less Fuel. The automation also brings significant environmental benefits. “A-STRADs use approximately 10% less fuel, which means they are indeed cheaper to run,” Clarke said.

Locata-enabled manned straddles near STS cranes unload a ship at dusk. (Photo: Photo: David Small/Locata)

Locata-enabled manned straddles near STS cranes unload a ship at dusk. (Photo: Photo: David Small/Locata)

Autonomous and Manned

Ensuring the safety of workers, machinery and cargo is a critical requirement at any port. All parts of the Ports of Auckland’s new system were tested for two years, including system software from both Konecranes and Locata.

The software was tested in pieces as it was developed. Then, full system functionality was delivered and tested. Both automated and manual straddles are centrally monitored and coordinated by this terminal operating system.

Working Together. Auckland’s port is the first in the world to use autonomous and manned machines together without a physical separation. This allows skilled operators to manually handle operations in specific areas, while the autonomous A-STRADs are tasked with monotonous and time-consuming jobs with no practical limitation on the machine’s repeatability.

Within the access-controlled premises in Auckland, all work areas are constantly monitored by the centralized system. The Locata system tracks the location of all straddle carriers at all times.

Training. All manual straddle drivers go through virtual and hands-on training with specific attention paid to safety protocols.

“Once they’ve first learned what to do in a simulator,” Clarke said, “they then carry out the same tasks with an instructor in a real straddle carrier. We also train our control room staff in a virtual training environment that’s a bit like a container terminal version of a flight simulator.” Figure 2 shows the screen of the operator training simulator.

Figure 2. The straddle carrier simulator used for manual straddle operator training shows (top left) the container drop-off location, designated path, and open and restricted zones. (Photo: Ross Clark/Ports of Auckland)

Figure 2. The straddle carrier simulator used for manual straddle operator training shows (top left) the container drop-off location, designated path, and open and restricted zones. (Photo: Ross Clark/Ports of Auckland)

Laser Scanners. As a last line of defense, autonomous A-STRADs are equipped with laser scanners that detect obstacles and automatically engage collision prevention measures, if required.

More Locata Applications

Port machinery automation is the most recent industrial sector to reveal the adoption of Locata technology. However, Locata is already used by large industry partners for deep-pit mining where mine pit walls act like deep urban canyons and severely limit the sky view. (See GPS World, March 2017.)

Locata also is being used as the core truth reference positioning system at the U.S. Air Force (USAF) White Sands Missile Range. There, it is independently providing high-accuracy non-GPS-based positioning when GPS signals are heavily jammed; this is practically the Holy Grail for alternative PNT, and the USAF has been using the system operationally at White Sands since 2016. (See GPS World, January 2020.)

NASA is another Locata user, working with the Federal Aviation Administration on research for next-generation air traffic control. Numerous other applications are currently in stealth development.

Gambale said the company’s technology is not representative of a solution just for ports, mines, aviation, military or any other specific application. “Our ground-based technology has myriad advantages in the many environments where satellite-based positioning was never designed to work. We can change the game for many modern applications because Locata allows users to have total control over where transmitters are placed, the power they transmit, the design of their network structure, and much more.”

For more than 10 years, the company worked to develop technology to reduce multipath — the bane of high-accuracy GNSS positioning in urban, industrial, indoor and occluded areas.

“Those are all real-world environments where satellite-based signals cannot be tracked reliably enough for next-gen, extremely demanding applications like fully-autonomous operations,” Gambale said. “Our business is the direct result of GPS changing the world, and the industry then fueling a largely unqualified public expectation that centimeter-level positioning would be available everywhere. Clearly, that is not correct.

“The growing roster of huge, globally significant companies adopting our technology for applications that go beyond GPS limitations shows our developments deliver real benefits to many markets. Auckland is living proof that Locata is a true, terrestrial, centimeter-accurate alternative-PNT system.”

 

Source: Gps World

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