ANTWERP, Belgium – In the central covered courtyard of the iconic Antwerp Port House, beneath a soaring vertical extension designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid, Piet Opstaele stands on a giant map of Antwerp covering the floor, opens an augmented reality app on his phone and holds it over the port area on the map. The app shows the same map, except with various boats and ships suddenly appearing all along the River Scheldt and the giant port area, identified by their name and type of vessel.

“That’s just for fun,” says Opstaele, innovation enablement manager at the Antwerp Port Authority, of the digital shipspotting. Despite the spectacular transformation of this historical fire station into a sustainable, gravity defying city landmark, the real innovations are not in the building itself, but out on the water.

The new Port House building completed by Zaha Hadid in 2016 both preserves the facade of the old port fire station and, with its soaring vertical extension, references the importance of ships and diamonds to Antwerp. Photo: Pixabay.

“Innovation and sustainability are key elements for us,” Opstaele told during an interview at the Port House.

At the Port of Antwerp – the second biggest in Europe after Rotterdam – business is booming. Last year, more than 2 million tonnes of maritime cargo passed through it, and first quarter results this year were up 10 percent. “For quite a mature business, that’s quite significant,” laughs Opstaele.

But the port authority can see which way the wind is blowing, and does not intend to get left behind.

“One of the biggest challenges for the port is making the transition to a digitally connected network,” says Opstaele.

Piet Opstaele demonstrating an augmented reality app that reveals the locations of all ships in the Port of Antwerp. Photo:

“Companies like Maersk, the biggest shipping operator in the world, say ‘our biggest asset in the future will not be ships anymore’ – and that’s the biggest ship owner in the world saying that. In the coming 10-15 years, they will make the transition towards becoming a digital platform for cargo. And as a port, it will be important to be able to connect to the global network,” he says.

With this in mind, a year ago the Antwerp Port Authority teamed up with the city itself, the University of Antwerp and Flanders’ imec innovations hub and research centre to launch the Capital of Things initiative, which aims to position the Belgian city and port as an international hub for Internet of Things activities.

Port of innovations

The possibilities offered by IoT technology to the port are endless. Connected sensors make it possible to tell whether a container has been opened and when, whether a ship is moored or not, whether lifebuoys are in place or are missing, and much more. All of these applications have been tested or are due to be experimented with at the Port of Antwerp and are aimed at improving efficiency and safety. Like any port, Antwerp is the scene of illegal smuggling and accidents, and safety and security are a key priority, according to Opstaele.

The port is equipped with 800 cameras, producing an enormous amount of footage.

“Today the technology is becoming available to process that automatically,” says Opstaele.

“There is a lot of inteligence and information in one picture, so by processing these things you can collect a lot of intelligent data: what kind of traffic do you see, do you see any suspicious people, any oil spills. There are numerous applications in a port because of the diversity of activities there,” he said.

Recently, the port, which is home to the biggest petrochemical cluster in Europe, introduced “i-noses” – an innovative system for detecting gases and leaks that could pose a danger.

“If a barge tanker is storing or transporting some gases, it cannot be combined with the next load so they have to clear their tanks,” explains Opstaele.

“In principle, there are installations for that, but sometimes they do it illegally; they just open their tanks.”

To catch the rogue captains, the port is currently rolling out a network of i-noses that can detect components in real time. There are currently 25 i-noses, and plans to increase that number to 70. They have already helped the port authorities to identify and warn offenders, said Opstaele.

Another port issue that technology can help to solve is that of sedimentation. Because of the constant movement of ships in and around the port as well as the tides, buildup of sediment can become a problem for larger ships, which need to know that the water in the port is deep enough for them to moor safely. Previously, a boat crew would wait for a safe opportunity to measure the sediment amid the constant activity of ships coming in and out of port, which relied on the crew being present and available when that window of opportunity occurred. A few weeks ago, the port started testing driverless barges that use radar and automatic identification system (AIS) data of other ships to perform the task of slipping in and measuring the sedimentation.

The port also plans to have a network of autonomous drones operating in the port area looking out for oil spills and other issues by the end of 2020.

An old fishing boat on display inside the covered courtyard of the fire station building. The supports for Zaha Hadid's futuristic extension can be seen on either side of the photograph. Photo:

Call for startups

To continue to innovate – and not only in response to existing challenges – the Port of Antwerp tries to encourage startups developing relevant technology, says Opstaele – and here there could be opportunities for Skolkovo startups.

“One of the issues that we have is that there are not enough startups active in the maritime industry,” he said.

Charging stations for electric bikes in the underground car park of the Port House. Employees are encouraged to cycle to work. Photo:

To address this problem, February saw the launch of PortXL Antwerp, an accelerator that is already active in Rotterdam. The accelerator has about 1,000 international startups in its global scope, and matches them with corporates working in the port industry, according to Opstaele. Antwerp is currently at the stage of recruiting corporate partners for the accelerator, he said.

In October, the port is holding a hackathon together with ChainPORT, an informal network of the world’s 10 main container seaports. The hackathon, which is also open to international startups, will take place simultaneously in Antwerp and LA, and one of the challenges for hackers is how best to connect different ports with each other.

Among the technologies that have had or are expected to have the biggest impact on the maritime industry, Opstaele lists image-processing, automation and blockchain. And at the Port of Antwerp, smart ships are already on the horizon.

“The development of autonomous ships started later than cars, but it’s going much faster now, because it’s a more controlled environment: issues like speed and interference from people are far less of an issue for ships. So it could be that their operational implementation goes faster than cars,” says Opstaele.

“Fully autonomous ships are still far away, but remote controlled ones are coming up very fast. We will have different projects next year where commercial inland traffic will happen with remote-controlled ships,”  the innovation manager told

“That will be a big game-changer ... and probably there will be effects that we can’t know or estimate today.”