Buzz in harbour: how Belgian ports deal with drones

2021/11/08 at 10:04 AM

Day by day, drones are increasingly embedded in logistics processes. They have been already used for transporting documents, spare parts and material samples, for inspections, monitoring and measurements at the ports and terminals. In the port area, they have a variety of functions including water pollution monitoring, fire-fighting, rescue operations. The two biggest ports of Belgium are at the forefront in applying autonomous devices for everyday operations. During the last few months, the ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge made some progress in this area.

In September, a new type of vessel started to call at the Port of Antwerp. It is AquasmartXL, an unmanned boat, equipped with a camera, which is able to inspect hydraulic structures such as bridges, locks and jetties. The innovative vehicle allows receiving high-quality images, which are later converted into 3D models. Exploring them, the artificial intelligence automatically detects damage like cracks or corrosion. “In the past, we did it by way of rubber boats, manually, meaning we couldn’t get everywhere we wanted to,” said Johan Bogaerts, port’s technical manager.

The Port of Antwerp Authority is operating AquasmartXL (which has also been used in the Port of Rotterdam) for other purposes except ensuring smooth and safe traffic in the harbour. “We already rely on drones for incident management, such as oil spill detection and waste detection, as well as infrastructure inspections”, noted Svetlana Samsonova, the project manager at the Port of Antwerp Authority.

Unmanned monitoring in Antwerp

Echodrone and Echodrone 2.0 are other examples of unmanned technologies in the Belgian largest port. These are autonomous sonde vessels that can take a variety of depth measurements. Thus, they guarantee a safe passage for shipping. Unmanned devices monitor the port area not only from the water surface but also from the air. The Port of Antwerp is over 120 square kilometres in size so drones can make a significant contribution to its overall safety.

Sabca launches fixed-wing drone in the Port of Antwerp, source: Port of Antwerp Authority

In mid-September, the Port of Antwerp Authority in collaboration with Waasland Emergency Assistance Zone, the Antwerp Fire Service as well as its technology partner, Sabca, tested a “fixed-wing” drone for the first time. This UAV can fly around for more than 8 hours and take pictures with a very powerful camera (30x zoom) from a height of 280 meters. With a speed of 90 kilometres per hour, it covers a 25-kilometre route within 20 minutes.

During the trials, it recorded the images of four realistic emergency situations (a container fire, the rescue of a person in distress on top of a windmill, the rescue of a drowning person and the rescue of a man overboard). “Drones will be indispensable in the near future when performing high-risk tasks. By carrying out these demonstrations in collaboration with the Port of Antwerp, we are able to show that we can make various operations safer and more efficient by using unmanned aircraft for inspections, transporting goods and surveillance,” said Thibauld Jongen, CEO of Sabca. In the future, the port intends to maximise the assistance provided to the Harbour Safety & Security Service and its safety partners.

Drone in the Port of Zeebrugge, source: Port Authority of Zeebrugge

Flying in Zeebrugge

Meanwhile, another Belgian seaport, Zeebrugge, has been undertaking attempts to put in order the drone traffic within its area. Together with partner IDRONECT, the Port Authority of Zeebrugge put into service a new tool for handling drone requests starting from September. As the port is a UAS no-fly area, specific restrictions apply to drone flights there. Before the flight, a specific application must be submitted. It includes a flight plan, a pilot license, an operational authorisation issued by the Directorate General of Aviation, contact and registration details of both pilot and operator, etc.

The IDRONECT UTM’s software works with these applications. It digitalizes applications, ensures they comply with current EASA regulations, visualizes the planned drone flights and gives the port authority a live view of the active drones.

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