Using Drones in Port Operations is The Move World Commerce Needs

Ports have most to gain by deploying drones in their operational routine. As our airspace sees an exponential growth of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), our mind-space is engaged continuously to put them into good use. Drones have repeatable and scalable applications in almost any industry, and in this article we will deal with the use of drones in port operations. With rapid advancements in Artificial Intelligence technology an augmentation of productivity fueling these mutually causal processes, drones will soon be a prominent part of the skies. Purely based on cost-effectiveness, ports – could be the biggest benefactor of drones.

A vast majority of us are oblivious to the power and impact of the sea on the world economy (it facilitates 90% of world trade). Ports form the nerve centres of a nation’s economy. This is even more pertinent for countries with a considerably extensive coastline, like India. Purely going by the sheer amount of traffic being handled and goods being loaded and unloaded daily, it is a no-brainer that Port operations are among the most critical, labor-intensive and complex with high financial stakes. It is in aid to face these challenges that drones find an excellent opportunity for application.

Traffic Management

One of the most critical aspects of port operations is vessel traffic management. Harbours generally have narrow channeled entry/exit and need to cater to the movement of a large number of ships daily. This process can get extremely complicated and safety-critical, as a tiny error can have catastrophic consequences, including loss of life and incapacitation of the port. A typical implementation of this includes a Vessel Traffic Management System (VTMS) situated at the Port Signalling Station or Port Control (similar to ATC at the airport) which helps the controller keep track of the location and movement of all the ships. However, due to the absence of real-time physical monitoring, the operator has to rely solely on Radar information and human inputs to remotely make his decisions. Application of drones can go a long way in addressing this shortcoming. A robust network of drones keep an eye on all the ships and provide consistent situational awareness to the controller.

Further, artificial intelligence enables the timely provision of essential features like collision prediction and warning to the operator. Scheduling ship movement can be offloaded to these drones, catering to their environmental requirements (tide, current, wind, etc.). Although awaiting large-scale implementation in the want of legislation on airspace management and security issues, many ports have started employing drones for traffic management.

In smaller and narrower areas, drones can contribute to ground-based port operations, as well as at-sea navigation, helping navigate ships into ports.

Environmental/ Law & Order

The shipping industry has a huge carbon footprint and causes marine pollution. International Maritime Organisation, the governing body of maritime laws and shipping, has issued stringent regulations with regards to maritime pollution and made the ports responsible for their compliance. This would entail regular inspection of ships by port authorities and law enforcement authorities, making it highly time-consuming and labour intensive.

Drones are again being used for environmental policing. Drones with onboard sensors and high-resolution cameras are employed to detect and report any violation of MARPOL regulations by ships in a speedy, cost-effective and consistent manner.

Illegal fishing and other activities within the port limits can also be kept under check with the well-equipped and well-networked drones constantly scanning the waters for violations.

Maritime Search & Rescue

One of the critical roles of Indian ports is maritime search and rescue. Though the Navy and Coast Guard are specialised and employed in these roles, the onus of first response always rests with the port authorities. “Follow the drone to safety” could become a new standard in the space. Drones can increase the effectiveness of just about any search and rescue effort, and that difference is especially evident at sea. Drones have already set the precedent by being invaluable in disaster management on land.

A drone equipped with VIDAR (Visual Detection and Ranging) can detect hundreds of objects at sea in a variety of conditions. It improves the cost-effectiveness of search and rescue. Drones can spot and identify even smaller objects such like stationary jet skis and buoys at 5 nautical miles.

The advantages drones are creating for search and rescue efforts are incredibly powerful, but those efficiencies will be taken to a whole new level when the autonomous capabilities of drones are further defined.

Personnel safety and inventory management

At ports, loading and unloading of goods is a herculean task. Limited availability of berths for the ship, and time constraints imposed by high traffic calls for consistent and efficient human effort for moving and accounting inventory. Drones can account for inventory and monitor human safety. Smart drones can be programmed to predict and prevent accidents arising from human fatigue or negligence. Also, humanly inaccessible container spaces can be checked and accounted for by drones.

The drones can also perform risky tasks such as rooftop and crane inspections, sometimes going where no man has gone before.

Afloat Replenishment/Delivery

Ships typically spend anywhere between two weeks and two months at anchorage depending on the size of the port and traffic it handles, waiting for their turn to enter the port. During this period, replenishment of essentials such as spare parts and documents is taken care of by the port. Launching delivery craft solely for this purpose is cost-ineffective, labour intensive and time consuming.

Drones speed up deliveries, cutting the time on last mile delivery. The response rate and turnaround time can be sped up 6X, and it has the potential to lower shore – to – ship delivery costs by up to 90% in some ports. Further, the risks of personnel boarding/ deboarding accidents are significantly mitigated.

Shipping currently accounts for 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions and could rise to 15%, if left unchecked. Our commitment to tackling climate change can be realized by substituting launch boat deliveries with drones.

Security and Surveillance

There is always a constant threat of an asymmetric/terrorist attack on ports, crippling the economy of the state and bringing it to a standstill. Further, the geographical location and expanse of port areas increases their vulnerability and calls for a robust layered security infrastructure.

Drones can play a pivotal role in surveillance and security of port installations. UAVs can capture pictures and videos from a variety of angles, in many locations. A single drone can collect more and better information than a series of cameras that are placed throughout a given location.

By combining drone data with stationary cameras, and even equipping drones with additional capabilities like facial recognition, port management can become dramatically more efficient.

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