A new project that aims to pilot smart digital initiatives to boost trade and foster economic growth in North East ports has been launched.

Digital and industry experts, academia, regional authorities as well as the Port of Berwick, Port of Blyth, Port of Sunderland, Teesport and Port of Tyne will seek to develop distinct satellite-based solutions and digital programmes as part of the Smart Port North East Testbed.

It is the first initiative of the Situational Awareness Information National Technology Service (SAINTS) that was recently launched by the North East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence and a group of innovative companies to use data from satellites and Earth-based sensors to solve major problems facing businesses, governments and communities.

SAINTS brings together experts from business, universities and the public sector to use artificial intelligence to harness data and develop solutions for pressing challenges facing the country.

The North East is an ideal location for the test bed, with the local economy strongly connected to the ports and a tight-knit business community acting as the perfect catalyst for collaboration. The North East also boasts a strong and growing space cluster, driven by the North East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence, operated by Business Durham, the economic development organisation for County Durham, and based at the region’s only dedicated technology park, NETPark in Sedgefield, County Durham.

Catherine Johns, Innovation Director at Business Durham, said: “Ports play a vital role in the regional and national economy, providing trading gateways to the rest of the world, with a massive impact on local supply chains and communities.

“The launch of SAINTS illustrates the important role the region’s fast-growing satellite and space sector can play in finding solutions to local issues and developing them to solve global problems in a sustainable way. The test bed provides an opportunity to pool the knowledge built up in one of our longest established industries with that of one of our newest.”

The digitisation initiative will aim to test scalable, satellite-based smart solutions that will work within a large programme of measures towards achieving four key outcomes for the ports: new business opportunities and hinterland engagement; boosting the growth of green energy and low carbon solutions; improved customer experiences; and operational excellence and security in and around the port.

Benefitting from its position in the Northumberland Coastal Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Port of Berwick will trial smart solutions to enable closer collaboration between the port and its hinterland, including boosting the local economy through a greater focus on tourism.

Home to the UK’s first offshore wind farm, EDF’s Blyth Offshore Demonstrator Wind Farm, and the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, Port of Blyth has developed an internationally significant hub of renewable energy, offshore and subsea companies based in and around the port. Their focus, therefore, as part of this initiative, will be to explore technological advancements suitable for servicing the renewable and green energy sectors.

Understanding expectations of the port’s freight clients, particularly those based in Scandinavia and the EU, and striving to meet the highest standards in sustainable practices, Port of Sunderland will aim to pilot solutions to improve operations, processes and transparency and lead on improved customer experience.

As the largest port in the region, Teesport (operated by PD Ports) is looking to test solutions to boost operational efficiency in logistics and warehousing processes, moving cargo from the port area to supply chains and wider logistics networks as efficiently as possible. Teesport operates nine weekly sailings to Rotterdam (NL) and Zeebrugge (BE), and knowledge from the Innovation Dock at Smart Port Rotterdam will be used to help inform identification of solutions and applications across the North Sea in the North East of England. As such, it will lead on operational efficiency initiatives, together with Port of Tyne. The only passenger ferry service from the North East to mainland Europe sails from Port of Tyne on the daily Newcastle to Ijmuiden (NL) route, operated by DFDS. Passenger safety, security and efficiency are integral to the user experience at the port.

The test bed will examine technologies such as artificial intelligence, data analytics, unmanned marine vessels, and airborne drones to enable ports to become more “intelligent” and examine ways of speeding up trade, increasing efficiency and reliability, reducing costs, tracking cargo, improving security and protecting the environment.

Stuart Martin, CEO of the Satellite Applications Catapult said: “Satellites have been providing services for the maritime economy for many years, with advanced technology for navigation and communications the norm in the sector. But as international trade continues to grow unabated, this initiative from SAINTS is an exciting new opportunity for UK companies to make significant technological advances for ports, and show what is possible from a combination of satellite data, terrestrial measurements and AI.

“By developing this collaboration between innovative companies and the ports themselves, the North East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence offers the hope of long-term business growth in the North East and with it, jobs in a highly skilled and growing sector.”