The Harbour Master’s Division is becoming increasingly automated, digitising various internal processes. As well as being efficient, this also improves port safety and transparency.

Harbour Master René de Vries and his colleagues are responsible for safe, smooth and sustainable handling of shipping traffic in the port of Rotterdam. 24 hours a day. They work with pilots, towing services, boatmen, terminals and other partners. ‘Approximately 30,000 seagoing vessels and over 100,000 inland vessels visit our port every year,’ explains De Vries. ‘Prior to arrival, they must report to the Harbour Coordination Center, where we arrange the planning and admission of vessels. We used to receive some 200,000 e-mail or telephone notifications a year. Very time-consuming! We’ve now automated 80 per cent of this, which makes us much more efficient and improves port safety.’

Safe and transparent

De Vries gives an example: ‘We want to know the length, beam and draught of vessels before they arrive at Rotterdam, so we can check whether their chosen berth is suitable . This is now all fully automated. The next step is to automate dynamic information including weather conditions: can a vessel reach the intended berth in heavy winds and rain? Huge container ships can only enter Maasvlakte safely at high tide. Ebb and flood happens twice a day and shipping agents want to know when that is, preferably several days in advance so that the vessels can adjust their speed accordingly. We’re also making this transparent digitally through automatic tidal window calculations.’

Clear and efficient

As well as ‘inward bound vessels’ the ‘warping movements’ of vessels moving within the port are also reported to the Harbour Coordination Center. Three years ago, this used to result in some 50,000 telephone calls per year but these notifications have now also been automated. ‘This also prevents misunderstandings’, says De Vries.

As well as Maasvlakte and Maashaven, we have many companies in Rotterdam that use the word Maas in their name. In an international sector such as shipping, this can result in language difficulties. Sharing more information with our clients digitally creates clarity. And although this reduces the personal contact, it’s safer and more efficient.

René de Vries

Client portal: My Port

Crew members can already submit their medical certificates automatically and reporting hazardous substances and waste will also be automated at a later stage. The ‘My Port’ client portal was set up for vessels calling at the port of Rotterdam, with a unique login code being generated for each vessel port call. This offers rapid access to all vessel information and is clear and transparent. De Vries continues: ‘We can use the portal to show clients which notifications they do or do not need to make, as this depends on such things as vessel and cargo type. As it’s not always necessary to report everything, this feature can also save time.’

Human strength

The Harbour Master’s Division mainly automates repetitive tasks where human intervention offers no added value. According to De Vries, in a large port such as the port of Rotterdam, there are more than enough tasks that should preferably not be carried out by computer. ‘Very large container ships are no longer allowed to enter Maasvlakte when wind speeds reach force 7. With winds approaching force 7 and a forecast of a rapid decrease in wind speed, a computer would still refuse a vessel entry. But a Traffic Center operator can use his or her experience to decide that it’s safe for the vessel to enter. We prefer to have the computer take care of repetitive work, but for extraordinary tasks that require human expertise we’ll always use people. Guiding difficult manoeuvres, such as an LNG tanker that needs to turn on Maasvlakte while three large container ships navigate around it, is and will remain pure people work as far as we’re concerned. Safety comes first.’


Patrol boat crew members have been assisted by drones for several years now, for instance when handling incidents. ‘The extent of water pollution is difficult to estimate from a patrol boat, which is why we ask the fire service to fly a drone over it. We’re also investigating other standard activities for which we can use drones. Every year we conduct several pilots, such as berthing inland vessels carrying hazardous substances. Drones help us monitor whether everything is going well so we only need to sail out there ourselves if it’s really necessary.’

Autonomous sailing

The Harbour Master’s Division is now also preparing for a future in which traffic controllers no longer communicate with a captain or pilot on board, but with a softly humming server. ‘The port isn’t ready for autonomous sailing as there aren’t any fully autonomous vessels yet. And there won’t suddenly be a big bang, with all vessels becoming autonomous overnight. However, in the coming decades we will be seeing a greater mix of traditional vessels and so-called smart ships, which are already in operation. After that there’ll be a phase in which vessels are controlled from the shore or sail entirely autonomously. And like a road authority, we need to be prepared. Except in this case our motorway is the Nieuwe Waterweg and both Teslas and Trabants need to be able to navigate there.’

Would you like to hear more from René de Vries and what he thinks the port of the future looks like? Will autonomous sailing a viable option anytime soon and where will the increase in container ship size end?

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