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Innovative EU project sees port workers lending hand

The EU-funded 'SECURCRANE' initiative has demonstrated a new system aimed at making life both easier and safer for ship-to-shore crane operators. Critical to the project has been the input and co-operation of the crane operators themselves, based in the port of le Havre, France.

Andrea Derito in le Havre © Peter Gutierrez
Andrea Derito in le Havre
© Peter Gutierrez

"Our crane operators work in moving, glass-bottomed control cabins, 40 metres up in the air," says, Jean-Yves Le Ven, Director of the Grand Port Maritime du Havre, on France's Normandy coast. "They work in a hunched over position, looking down. They are subjected to constant vibrations and sudden jolts. It's a tough job for tough men, and they don't complain, but it can also be dangerous work, and we think this new project can make a big difference, to them and to port operators."

The SECURCRANE project involves a remote control station that allows crane operators to work in safe and comfortable positions on the ground, either near the crane or at a distance. Computer and video screens, and audio speakers simulate the experience of being in the on-crane cabin while the operator uses familiar controls and joysticks to grab, lift, move and release freight containers.

Speaking at the SECURCRANE demonstration in le Havre in September 2009, Project Coordinator Andrea Derito of Italy's SCIROIDEA said, "The crane drivers have been central to this project. They are the ones who know what in means to operate one of these machines. They told us what they wanted and we built up the system based on their input."

Not about 'automation'

"We have to recognise that mistakes have been made in the past by researchers who had great ideas, created new systems and then presented them already completed to the people who they were aimed at helping, only to find that these people found them perfectly unacceptable," said Jean-Francois Emery of the Grand Port Maritime du Havre.

The SECURCRANE operator's post © Peter Gutierrez
The SECURCRANE operator's
© Peter Gutierrez

"For this project, we have had the crane operators with us from beginning to end," he said. "In a very real sense, this is their project. And it is very important to be clear here – this is not a project about 'automation'. No worker or operator is replaced by this system. It is a remote control system that takes the operator out of the on-crane control cabin and puts him on safe ground to do his job."

Flexible and powerful innovation

SECURCRANE is a stand-alone system that can be installed on any ship-to-shore crane, old or new. It consists of three modules, each working independently of the others:

  • A remote control cabin is installed at ground level, near the crane or at a more distant location. The cabin comprises a user-friendly, modular, 'man-machine' interface derived from the defence field, with an innovative 3D real-time visual system that allows depth perception without special glasses, enabling drivers to carry out highly specialised operations such as container engagement.
  • A new intelligent anti-sway system based on cognitive sciences applications can be used pro-actively to predict and compensate for load sway before it occurs, or it can be engaged and disengaged manually by the operator as he sees fit.
  • A cargo monitoring system uses scanning technologies previously developed for road transport and industrial applications, ensuring robustness as well as low purchase and maintenance costs. Containers are scanned visually for ID codes, possible damage and other characteristics. A database keeps key information for various uses, including potential dispute resolution.

Any number or combination of the three modules may be installed on a given crane, again ensuring total operator control.

A very promising start

SECURCRANE partners say their demonstrator system can and will be improved. The next step is a fully fledged prototype, including improved 3D screens. We see an enormous economic potential for this kind of system," said Le Ven. "It is very adaptable and could be used on any crane in virtually any port in the world."

Joost de Bock © Peter Gutierrez
Joost de Bock
© Peter Gutierrez

"This project has taken a special approach," said EU Project Officer Joost de Bock, "by putting users at the centre, the actual crane operators, creating a system 'from the people up'. There is certainly a great potential for further development and eventually a system that can go to the marketplace and be successful. And we hope the kind of co-operative work that's been demonstrated here will continue, as this is the only way to keep Europe at the forefront of this industry."

The SECURCRANE demonstration ended on a positive note as terminal operators in the port of Le Havre, crane manufacturer Bertolotti and the crane drivers all affirmed their determination to continue to co-operate in view of further development and implementation of the new SECURCRANE system.