Drones are increasingly being integrated into the daily operations of ports around the world, in some innovative ways. This had made the ports to realise the immense benefits they offer to safety, productivity and cost efficiency.
Efrat Fenigson, vice president of marketing at autonomous drone specialist Airobotics, believes the ports industry is primed for an increase in drone usage.
“Automation cuts out business and human risks, increases accuracy of data collected and allows 24/7 availability. Personnel are then freed up to perform more valuable roles such as data analysis,” she says.
Assisted port operations
Airobotics drones assists in port monitoring and traffic control beyond the shoreline for vessel navigation and security. They can also operate in rapid emergency response situations and support intelligence decisions with fast and accurate aerial data.
Drones can additionally monitor containers holding hazardous or toxic materials and liquids that must be inspected regularly for prevention of leaks and spillages, which can cause environmental damage with financial impacts.
Airobotics also believes that drones play a major role in inventory control of outdoor bulk material storage areas. Autonomous drones are able to fly over storage areas and calculate inventory in mass quantities with great accuracy in a time-efficient manner. This greatly increases the port’s productivity and saves money in potential miscalculations.
The harmful effects
The recent incidents where strapping explosive to drones to use them as offensive weapons, has increased concerns on drone safety.
Since most anti-drone systems are acoustically-based, Ms Dierker suggests that present detection methods only work under ideal. But ports are highly challenging environments for this type of technology, since sound bounces around.
She labels radio frequency tracking as “pretty good”, but if drones are equipped with on-board intelligence, the ability to track them becomes much more difficult, since there is no remote control element to monitor.
Swarm Drone attacks
The drone industry is now working on developing co-ordinated drone swarms, which means multiple drones could be collectively flown into a given area, overcoming most single detection sources.
One of the suggested solutions to tracking inbound drones either flown individually or in swarms is a combination of lidar and radar. Lidar, in particular, works well in adverse weather conditions and requires no ambient light to pick out objects.
“Lidar produces a very detailed understanding of what is moving around in the environment in a way that radar cannot,” says Ms Dierker. “And, unlike radar, lidar can see a hovering drone.”
Radar is also hampered by the amount of time it takes to develop a track. In some instances, it will take up to 20 seconds to accurately pick out a drone, by which time it might be too late. In contrast, lidar can quickly determine the path a drone is taking within a 500 metre-1,000 metre range. Even if the drone stops moving, lidar can continue to see it. Furthermore, the number of drones in a swarm can be determined, too, even if they are as close as 1.5 metres to each other, depending on range.
Ms Dierker concedes that research into drone detection using combined lidar/radar is still at an early stage. All too often, objects can remain ambiguous, and yet needs sophisticated algorithms to identify actual targets as inbound drones. nOther effective measures do exist apart from acoustics detections.
Oleg Vornik, chief executive of DroneShield, says his company markets the Drone Gun, which jams the frequencies that are used to control drones, while being harmless to, for example, aircraft.
“We trigger the drone to either land vertically or go back to where it came from, thereby allowing [a port or terminal] to track the location of the pilot, who can then be picked up by the authorities.”
The Gun can take out a drone at distances of up to 2 kilometres. However, at present, in most countries only military operatives are cleared to use the Gun, although new legislation is being looked at in several countries to get around this.
No skilled pilots
A shortage of qualified pilots could scupper the aims of ports looking to capitalise on drone benefits, meaning that ports need to invest in adequate training or pay up for the services of qualified third-party services.
Although programmes for pilot training are available in Efrat Fenigson’s opinion, there are more cost effective, safer and always available services that can be bought in from third parties.
Airobotics’ area of expertise, as its technology allows ports to access the benefits of fully autonomous drones without a human pilot in command.
In Norway another port deploys drones to monitor and clean up the local environment. Similarly, in Israel, Airobotics drones are supporting the construction of the country’s largest port project at Haifa, with daily mapping and surveying.
One of the areas where Airobotics thinks ports can benefit from drones is in navigation.
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Source: Port strategy