Home5G5G, blockchain, and tracking – the Marseille model for smart ports

5G, blockchain, and tracking – the Marseille model for smart ports

The Port of Marseille Fos, in France, has new discussions with Orange about 5G, a developing relationship with IBM on blockchain, and a host of collaborations with local industry around port innovation, geared towards container handling, traffic management, cyber-security, and renewable energy. 

Stéphane Reiche, general delegate at the port authority, the Grand Port Maritime de Marseille (GPMM), says of its 5G-prep work: “It’s a very current discussion – and only a discussion; it has not been finalised yet.” 

Marseille is taking its cues from Hamburg, whose port authority has just finished testing public 5G with Deutsche Telekom. Marseille and Hamburg are natural collaborators. The cities have a twinning agreement; their port authorities have a collaboration deal, as well, signed last summer, covering the “environmental and digital transition of port activities”. 

Reiche says: “We have looked at what Hamburg is doing because it has been quite active with 5G, with some very precise applications. And we have asked companies on the port if they have an interest. So we are looking at how we might replicate what’s happening in Hamburg, and also bring in applications of our own.” 

The 5G template, of a slice from a public network, will be copied. “We haven’t finalised the fields of application we will want to test on. But I suppose looking at what Hamburg has done, it could be part of the public frequencies.” 

But Marseille Fos – the biggest port in France and the second biggest on the Mediterranean Sea, covering an area the size of Paris – is making its own way, too. It is leading the new French Smart Port in Med initiative, convened at the end of 2018 by the Marseille Provence Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the port authority of Marseille Fos, and the Aix Marseille Provence University. 

The project is looking to establish Marseille Fos, which spans the old maritime port in Marseille and the container port in adjacent Fos, as an industrial IoT testbed, with an ambition to “build the port of the future”, and a focus on efficiency, innovation, environmental sustainability, and new jobs.

The initiative has received funding from French shipping company CMA CGM, French energy group EDF, Dutch data centre company Interxion, French shipping company La Meridionale, Marseille shopping centre Les Terrasses Du Port, and French industrial firm Naval Group. 

It has also been selected to preside over a new smart port committee, one of a half-dozen new committees formed by 20-odd different Mediterranean port authorities, working as part of the MEDports Association. The smart port committee will see the exchange good practices and initiatives to optimise maritime transport in the Mediterranean, says Marseille Fos. 


Meanwhile, the port authority has opened discussions with IBM about TradeLens, its blockchain-enabled digital shipping platform, developed with Danish shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk (Maersk). CMA CGM, one of seven partners in the French Smart Port in Med initiative, joined the TradeLens in May. 

Shipping carrier Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) is also involved. MSC and CMA CGM have stakes in France based IoT tracking company Traxens, which has just been appointed as associate partner to the French Smart Port in Med project. Maersk has a stake in Traxens, too, pending final approvals. 

“We have no agreement, yet, but we’re looking very seriously at it,” says Reiche of TradeLens. “IBM has tried to convince us the system is very good for logistics, worldwide. We think it’s still at the beginning, but we are very attentive about what is going on because it has managed to mobilise quite a lot of actors in the supply chain, including shipping companies and port authorities in other countries.” 

GPMM, the port authority, is also among the financial backers of a separate blockchain pilot scheme, which aims to demonstrate freight logistics on the two rivers, the Rhone and Saone, joining the Mediterranean Sea at Fos-sur-Mer, known as the Mediterranean-Rhone-Saone (MeRS) axis. The solution will give certified users access to protected documents, enabling multiple parties to share data without the need for dedicated infrastructure. 

Cargo tracking firm Marseille Gyptis International (MGI), container trading platform provider BuyCo, and blockchain specialist KeeeX are deploying the system, focusing on securing and verifying the cargo hinterland trade, up and downstream of Fos-sur-Mer. Two companies, French PVC manufacturer KEM ONE and French aluminium manufacturer Alteo, have started putting shipments on the system.

“It’s like a community management system, a backbone system for each logistic flow. It has really started over the last month with real goods, real containers,” says Reiche. 

GPMM runs a ‘tight ship’, besting much bigger ports in Europe, and is pitching for new trade on its sea lanes, particularly for goods from Asia Pacific and via the Suez Canal. But it vision as a smart port is to bring even more capacity. 

“We are comparable to the best ports in Europe – Rotterdam, Hamburg, Antwerp – and even better for measures like congestion, in the port areas and into the hinterland connections. We still have available capacity, and that’s something we are putting forward – that the time has come to put more traffic through us, as the southern entrance to Europe. But technology can always help, of course.” 


Traxens, the only IoT company supporting the French Smart Port in Med initiative, is a key example, bridging the public/private connectivity space between port authorities and terminal operators. 

Traxens is offering $50-$150 trackers for $10,000-$12,000 containers, sold as-a-service on a $5-$20 monthly subscription or a $30- $150 per-trip basis, covering the data as well, for shipping lines and cargo owners, respectively. Its tracking devices include sensors for location, geo-fencing, door status, shock, and external temperature. 

“We combine those data blocks to create new events – if you combine the door status with the location and context, you know whether if something is not right,” says Thomas Nouvian, deputy director for the company’s maritime business unit.

The company has equipped 6,000 shipping containers so far with cellular-based trackers, which can be retrofitted, but cannot be removed. “A smart container, fitted permanently, remains smart, whether it’s being used or not,” explains Nouvian.

“That model is the only one that works if your aim is mass-ify smart containers – to have millions of them.” Traxens is on its way to more millions, it seems, with recent investments from CMA CGM, MSC, and Maersk (pending) set to bring its total orders to 150,000 units. 

The company has just closed a €20 million Series C round of investment funding, besides, and has new deals with China International Marine Containers (CIMC) and PT Trans Kontainer Solusindo (TKS), which carts goods for around 17,000 islands in Indonesia. The big draw is to illuminate the container’s journey for export. 

“Until today, it has been difficult, almost impossible, to really know what’s going on before the container gets to port. The cargo just arrives, right – port management knows it has arrived when it arrives,” says Nouvian. 

Its IoT solution starts tracking the moment the container exits the container depot, and follows it in and out of factories and warehouses, and via ships, trains, lorries, and barges, until it returns again to the container yard. 

But it is the picture of the hinterland, stretching backwards into cities and industrial back-country, before the container arrives at the port terminal, which has been missing. And its data, feeding into the port’s ‘cargo community system’, which connects the various stakeholders in the port trade, comes to a head in the customs office. 

Its data feeds into the cargo community system, connecting the various stakeholders in the port trade, including the port authority, shipping lines, freight-forwarders, customs office, and police. 5G-connected traffic lights can bring intelligence to traffic controls, but it is the paperwork that invariably brings the traffic to a halt. 

“The port is not just cranes and gantries. The customs office plays a huge role in the efficiency of the port,” says Nouvian. “The customs process takes most time. If customs has a good understanding of the origin and travel of the goods, and whether a container has been opened, say, the whole process accelerates.” 

In terms of connectivity, we have dropped down a level from LTE and 5G. Nevertheless, there is question about public and private networks, and even whether cellular is most suited for such IoT tracking. It turns out, in this case, cellular is just the ticket, but in a 2G / 3G format, with LTE upgrades (with 2G-fallback) in planning. Why cellular, then, and not non-cellular low-power wide-area (LPWA) tech like LoRaWAN or Sigfox, which are pushing hard in the asset tracking space – or even cellular LPWA tech like NB-IoT or LTE-M, for that matter? 

“The two most important aspects are coverage and capacity,” says Nouvian. “GSM is global; there is very little white space, where there’s no signal. And we need even enough bandwidth to transfer the data. There are other reasons, too, but those two aspects mean LoRaWAN or Sigfox are not viable.” 

But LoRaWAN and Sigfox are building their networks, all the time. Will these alternative technologies ever be a better option than cellular? “It’s a very bold bet, if you ask me,” he says of the idea either will match cellular coverage. 

“Never,” he says of Sigfox, because of the “absolutely enormous” fees to go beyond point-to-point deployments. “No chance,” he says, of the idea LoRaWAN will ever be deployed in “numbers high enough, with service level high enough”. 

At the same time, Traxens is looking to deploy local LoRaWAN networks on vessels, to fill-in ocean coverage, where cellular does not provide coverage and satellite is too expensive. 

This is an excerpt from an editorial report, called Smart Ports – Automation and Intelligence with Private Networks and Public Slices. The full report is available to download for free, here.

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