There are benefits, but also worrying risks associated with drone use in ports, finds Alex Hughes.


Once the preserve of the rich and idle, drones are increasingly being integrated into the daily operations of ports around the world, in some innovative ways.

Just as the drones themselves have become more advanced and gained new capabilities, ports have come 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.

“It’s already increased significantly over the past several years and as the ports industry becomes more technologically advanced, ports will continue to seek out new technologies that can improve their operational efficiency and increase safety. Today, I believe autonomous drones are one of the most important areas of technology that will change how industrial fields do business and how cities operate”. Some ports she adds, are already more progressive in their use of drones than others.

In Vietnam, she recalls, one port is using a drone for aerial cargo transport, while in Norway another port deploys drones to monitor and clean up the local environment. 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. Drones, suggests Mrs Fenigson, and especially multi-rotor drones, can prove useful when performing missions that require surgical, dynamic modes since the drone can stop and spend time at a certain location to provide a clearer aerial view. This is helpful for navigation in smaller, narrower areas when this ability can contribute to ground-based port operations, as well as at-sea navigation. Additionally, drones can help navigate ships into ports. For example, a drone can approach a coming ship and navigate it back to land.

“These uses will complement radar, which is a good existing technology,” says Mrs Fenigson.


Operational assistance

In the field of environmental and health and safety deployment, she sees Airobotics drones assisting 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 for environmental and ecological issues on-site and in the surrounding areas as well. As an example, containers holding hazardous or toxic materials and liquids must be inspected regularly for prevention of leaks and spillages, which can cause environmental damage with financial impacts.

Routine and on-demand equipment inspection ensures the machinery is safe to operate, too.

Traditionally, ports carry out various inspections by putting boots on the ground, but this can often prove unnecessarily dangerous in some cases, not to mention costlier than drone deployment.

“Employees performing hands-on inspections are at risk since this usually involves ladders, rigs to large machinery, and other dangerous tasks,” says Mrs Fenigson. “It also requires machinery to be shut down, resulting in significant financial implications. In contrast, autonomous drones offer a professional tool for viewing difficult-to-access areas, giving inspectors a safer, more cost-efficient way of gaining greater insight into operation-critical processes. Additionally, drone inspection significantly reduces the time it takes to inspect, thus saving costs and increasing operational efficiency.”

Airobotics also sees a major role for drones in inventory control of outdoor bulk material storage areas. Taking inventory by hand invariably results in miscalculations or mistakes, as well as being a lengthy process for employees. 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.

“Ports immediately see a return on their investment in drone technology. This comes from the highly accurate data they receive and the time they save in tasks that could have previously taken three or four times as long,” says Mrs Fenigson. “They can capitalise on their initial investment and recoup costs faster by streamlining tasks and team members, so no time is wasted. They can also ensure the data they’re receiving from the drones are being used in the most efficient way to push operations or tasks forward at a faster speed, thereby finishing the project ahead of schedule.”


Safety risk

However, not all drones are used to benefit operations at ports. Indeed, ever since Isis began strapping explosives to drones and using them as offensive weapons, a whole industry has sprung up to find ways of helping critical infrastructure facilities, such as ports and terminal operators, defend themselves against possible attacks.

Industry professional Laura Dierker notes: “Drones are going to be the biggest problems that we have ever faced because we have never had to defend ourselves against toys before.

“No organisations in this field think that drone detection is easy. Indeed, most accurate drone detection is only achievable under very constrained conditions.”

Most anti-drone systems are acoustically-based. However, Ms Dierker suggests that these only work in optimum conditions. Ports, unfortunately, are highly challenging environments for this type of technology, since sound bounces around.

Radar presents similar problems, often recording multi-paths when tracking drones, making it difficult to identify true objects.

She labels radio frequency tracking as “pretty good” if drones are being conventionally flown. However, as soon as GPS enters the equation, or 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 attacks

Worse still, the drone industry is 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 the 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, requiring as yet unavailable sophisticated algorithms to identify actual targets as inbound drones.

Nevertheless, where acoustic equipment can be deployed, effective counter-measures against drones do exist.

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.



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.

“Some ports may be heavily invested in drones and have dedicated teams on site to fly them, while others hire drone services companies to provide support. Many have not even begun to use them yet,” Airobotics’ Efrat Fenigson observes.

Programmes for pilot training are available. However, in her opinion, there are more cost effective, safer and always available services that can be bought in from third parties. This is Airobotics’ area of expertise, as its technology allows ports to access the benefits of fully autonomous drones without a human pilot in command. These drones can be operated with a simple push of a button or in a pre-scheduled mode.

“Automation cuts out business and human risks increases the 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.

Source: Port strategy