Antwerp Tests Autonomous Drones for Port Monitoring and Security

autonomous drones for port security
Autonomous drones have begun flights over the port (Port of Antwerp photo)

Published Feb 24, 2021 3:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Port of Antwerp is expanding its testing of autonomous drones to monitor activity and maintain safety across the port complex. This week, for the first time, an autonomous drone was deployed following a fixed route above the port testing applications for inspection and control around the port. The port authority is conducting a series of tests in 2021 towards its vision of deploying a network of autonomous drones in 2022.

The current test flights are exploring the use of drones in various situations including infrastructure inspection, surveillance and monitoring, incident management, berth management, and oil spill or drift detection. The objective is to test the systems in a realistic and complex environment with obstacles ranging from windmills to high voltage lines, to see how they can support the Harbor Safety & Security service. 

“We are doing all we can for a safe harbor and drones will become indispensable for this in the near future,” says Annick De Ridder, port alderman. “Innovation and digitization are crucial to guarantee the long-term sustainable growth of our port. Port of Antwerp is, therefore, the driving force behind devising and realizing solutions for the challenges of tomorrow. The port is the ideal environment to test and further develop innovative technology.”

According to the Port of Antwerp, the use of drones can make an important contribution to the general safety of the port complex which spans nearly 30,000 acres. The drones provide a unique perspective from the air and enable the port authority to manage, inspect and control a large area in a fast and safe manner. The drone works completely independently and charges itself utilizing an intelligent docking station that is centrally managed from a web platform. Also, the drone can fly on request, for example in emergencies where an overview of the situation is important. 

The port’s Chief Digital & Innovation Officer Erwin Verstraelen predicts that the drones will be among the new technologies deployed as the work to develop Antwerp as a smart port. Through its “Port of the Future” innovation platform, Antwerp is looking to accelerate technological innovation including the development of autonomous shipping, smart cameras, and sensors.

Previously, as part of the Port of Antwerp's participation in the SAFIR project, extensive tests were conducted to investigate the feasibility of manned and unmanned drones in the port. At the end of last year, the Port of Antwerp and the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) teamed up for a project involving a pilot-controlled drone.

Ports in Northern Europe have also tested the use of drones in other applications including enforcement of environmental regulations. Danish and French authorities used sulfur sniffing drones flying over the English Channel and their ports to test the emissions from ships to determine if they complied with the low sulfur fuel regulations. Experts predict that as the technology becomes more advanced, drones will play an increasing role in port operations.