Seven levels full of future

The Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services in Hamburg has been developing solutions for the shipping business and port operations for ten years. Artificial intelligence is playing a rapidly growing role, also for HHLA.

In his mind’s eye, everything is already completed. “Out there,” says Professor Carlos Jahn, pointing to the large front window, “there will be a pontoon with a crane that can lower our test vehicles into the water.” At the moment, only rough concrete walls and scaffolding are visible all around. Yet the anticipation is evident in the face of the director of the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services (CML) as he makes the rounds of a construction site visit.

Jahn is standing in the ground floor room in the shell of a seven-storey construction on the shore of the Lotse canal in Hamburg-Harburg. “This is where our lab for harbour technology will be located,” says the professor. Laboratories for additional maritime research areas will move into the upper levels. The plan is to move the entire CML to Harburg’s harbour front in autumn 2021. From here, a short waterway leads directly to the open Süderelbe.

“AI will free people up from simple jobs or monotonous, repetitive decisions so they can dedicate themselves to other tasks.”

Professor Carlos Jahn, director of the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services (CML)

In the tenth year of its existence, the Fraunhofer CML is firmly established in Hamburg. For this reason, the EU, the German federal government and the state of Hamburg have declared their willingness to finance a new construction project. For the new building alone, the CML, a member of Germany’s largest research association, will receive funding of € 20 million. When it’s finished, up to 90 employees on seven floors will be able to conduct research for the future under optimum conditions.

Successful networking of science, port and maritime industry

In its first decade, the CML has already made a name for itself in application research as well as with project partnerships and technology transfers. In addition, the facility is a part of the productive discourse that has arisen through the CML’s connection to the Hamburg University of Technology, the port industry and maritime companies.

The COOKIE project, one of the successful partnerships with the maritime industry, is a research collaboration between the CML and HHLA subsidiary HCCR. The project name stands for “COntainerdienstleistungen, Optimiert durch Künstliche IntelligEnz”. In English: Container Services Optimised Through Artificial Intelligence. At its core, it is about image recognition. Empty containers, which are in great demand worldwide, will be checked for damage using an algorithm developed by the CML. This will allow necessary repairs to be assigned to them more quickly.

Professor Jahn, the founding director of the CML, has helped shape its successful work. He is also intimately acquainted with COOKIE: “AI supports the human monitors with visual analysis and the classification of damage to the containers.” The algorithm could also eventually be used to optimise container cleaning programmes. “COOKIE shows very clearly,” says Jahn, “that AI also makes sense for concrete tasks in the port and isn’t only useful for some kind of top-secret plans at Google or Amazon.”

The CML and HHLA are seasoned innovation partners, also in other projects. The scientific institution simulated potential truck traffic flow at the so-called Waltershof junction for both the logistics company and its competitor Eurogate. The simulation was based on varying expansions of this port traffic bottleneck, through which hundreds of vehicles move daily.

The right nose for technological developments

The CML boss has always been excited by all things having to do with ports and the wide open sea. Jahn, who comes from the Harz mountain region, began his career on a German Navy reconnaissance ship. “My very first journey was on the Gorch Fock,” recalls the mechanical engineering and business studies graduate happily.

It might have been the sea air that led Jahn to develop a nose for research into technological developments that benefit the maritime economy. One of the most spectacular projects of the Fraunhofer CML is its work on the future of shipping. “For instance, we’re researching the use of augmented reality to remotely control tugs from onshore,” says the head of the institute.

If it weren’t for travel restrictions related to the coronavirus, a CML team would have already completed the first test of a remote-controlled tug in the port of Rotterdam in the autumn. “Instead, we were reduced to a three-metre model here in Hamburg,” says Jahn. “But a genuine tug captain successfully steered the model through the water using a head-mounted display and a steering console.”

The CML’s goal is for ships to manoeuvre completely autonomously. The researcher sees no danger that artificial intelligence will destroy a massive amount of jobs in the future, either on deck or in the port. “AI will free people up from simple jobs or monotonous, repetitive decisions so they can dedicate themselves to other tasks.”