Eyes in the Sky Ports Continue to Expand Use of Drones

Security and surveillance are among top uses, but ports are deploying unmanned aerial systems for a raft of applications ranging from surveying construction sites to filming videos to boost community relations.
eyes in the sky

When most folks think about how ports are using unmanned aerial systems, security might be the first thing that leaps to mind, and for good reason: Most ports using drones tasked them with security detail long before other uses were even imagined.

At the Port of Long Beach, however, drones are criss-crossing the airspace over the nation’s second-busiest container port on a variety of other missions, and the port continues to identify additional uses for them, said Kimberley Holtz, director of survey for the port.

“We originally acquired drones for disaster situations so the port could do a quick assessment to make sure it was safe to put people back in certain areas, after an earthquake for example,” Holtz said. “Once we acquired drones, we started looking at what else we could use them for.”

Long Beach has plenty of company. Ports around the world are turning to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to address a diverse array of needs, from de-risking dangerous tasks performed by humans to filming videos for use in a port’s marketing and community relations efforts.

Global Market Is Taking Off Unquestionably, the drone business is looking up. Various reports project double-digit growth in the drone market between 2020 and 2025. Drone Market Insights, for example, estimates the market will grow at a cumulative annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.8% from $22.5 billion to $42.8 billion.

Ports and other industries included in the transportation and warehousing sector under the NAICS Industry Code are expected to be the fastest-growing users of drone technology and will represent the second-largest drone user by industry, trailing only the energy sector, by 2025.

Globally, Asia has overtaken North America as the largest drone market, fueled in large part by India, which just legalized drones in 2018 and is on track to become the world’s third-largest market by 2025, according to the same report. One reason: India’s multi-year push to improve its ports, including a planned $82 billion investment in ports by 2035.

“Drones are finding their use increasingly in applications like surveillance, mapping and survey and inspection of port assets,” said Somil Gautam, assistant general manager for industrial applications for Mumbai-based drone manufacturer ideaForge Technology. “Ports are turning to drones to achieve real benefits in cost optimization, process improvement and quicker decision-making.”

Growing Number of Applications

Security and surveillance continue to top the leaderboard as the most common uses of drones by ports, according to Gautam. Drones became particularly useful during the pandemic as ports faced with manpower shortages turned to them for perimeter surveillance and day and night monitoring.

Monitoring on-ground operations, asset inspection and management, and mapping and survey are the next most common applications of drones by ports, in that order, and their use for these purposes is growing rapidly, Gautam said.

Beyond those uses, ports seem to be discovering new ways to use drones on an almost daily basis. A few examples:

  • Pollution control: To enforce environmental regulations, ports from Hong Kong to the Netherlands are using special sensor-equipped drones to sniff out and fine ships burning fuels that exceed legal sulfur limits.
  • Marine patrol: Some ports are replacing boats with drones for the task of patrolling sea lanes outside of ports where floating buoys or offshore jetties are often used to moor oil tankers and other ships carrying liquid cargo.
  • Document transmittal: The Port of Hamburg is deploying drones for document transmittal to solve a problem created by having berths located on either side of a river, according to Mohit Bhalla of Lloyd’s Register, a provider of drone-assisted port crane inspection services.
  • Navigation aid: The Port of Corpus Christi is teaming up with researchers at Texas A&M Corpus Christi to develop a system using drones to help vessels navigate in and out of port even in dense fog. (See story on page 32.)
  • Community relations: The Port of Long Beach used footage shot from a drone for a video tribute celebrating the new Long Beach International Gateway Bridge, a key point of access to the port’s Terminal Island.
    inspecting hard to reach places

    Inspecting Hard-to-Reach Places

    Drones are already proving their value in getting to hard-to-access or dangerous places to complete inspections – and saving ports time and money that would otherwise be lost to equipment downtime, said Bhalla, corporate accounts manager for port crane inspection services at Lloyd’s Register.

    In the case of cranes, drone-assisted inspections are primarily targeted for the quay cranes in ports – the largest and most complex cranes at any port. A conventional inspection involves erecting scaffolding to reach inaccessible areas like back stays, a time-intensive process requiring up to seven days of downtime, Bhalla said.

    “The inaccessible areas of a quay crane constitute approximately 20-25% of the crane and it is these areas that are inspected utilizing drones,” said Bhalla, whose company earlier this year was managing crane inspection projects at Port of Sines in Portugal and Port Adani in India. “A hybrid approach of drone and manual inspection methods makes it possible to complete an assessment of a quay crane within two days, thus saving significant downtime costs for port terminals.”

    At the Port of Long Beach, drones are allowing the port to easily capture images of infrastructure ranging from storm drains to fire hydrants to the fenders and bollards along the wharf – and simplify the task of keeping track of the condition of such physical assets.

    “With the drones, via GPS, it assigns a coordinate to every picture where it was taken, so now we can plot those points and it gives you the exact location of the asset and its current condition,” said surveyor Hugo Aguilar, an FAA-licensed remote pilot who is in charge of the port’s drone program working under David Dao, who is also FAA-licensed. “So we’re streamlining the process of providing that information not only to engineers but to several stakeholders at the same time. It’s a super easy tool.”

    For example, drone inspection flights to catalog fenders in need of replacement were put on hold during the pandemic, but Holtz’s team was gearing up over the summer to resume the project. “We know we need to replace a number of fenders, but to go and replace all of our fenders at the same time, the cost would be astronomical,” Holtz said. “What they’re trying to do is document the condition of the fenders and replace the fenders in the worst condition.”

    Long Beach is also using drones to capture detailed images of tall, hard-to-get-at structures. When it was preparing to bid out the dismantling of the old Gerald Desmond Bridge, Holtz’s team flew a drone along the span’s upper reaches to photograph the exact location of every bolt so potential bidders could accurately assess the scope of the project.

    key tool in supporting port construction projects

    Key Tool in Supporting Port Construction Projects

    With their ability to create accurate 3D digital terrain models, drones have been in huge demand at the Port of Long Beach for surveying and construction-related applications, Holtz said.

    “In construction we’re using them now to do quantities of stockpiles – which is quicker and safer than traditional methods. We don’t have guys climbing up and down big dirt piles that they could slip off of. Some of those dirt piles are pretty steep. And the drone provides more accurate quantities. We’re starting to use it for that a lot and we’re also monitoring construction projects now.”

    During construction of the port’s new automated Middle Harbor terminal, the port’s drones were making weekly flyovers so that “we could show the construction inspectors, engineers, project managers, and executive managers how the project was progressing,” Holtz said.

    An Investment in Safety

    In addition to cost savings and greater efficiencies, Lloyd’s Register’s Bhalla and port officials say drones also pay dividends in a currency measured in human terms: safety.

    Holtz says drones keep port employees safe in a number of ways. In addition to eliminating the need for workers to scramble around on dirt piles, bridge inspections are another application where unmanned aerial systems can keep humans out of harm’s way.

    The port’s Terminal Island is accessible only by bridges, including the new Long Beach International Gateway Bridge – so being able to inspect them safely in the wake of an earthquake would be a top priority.

    “The biggest threat for the port is that if there’s any kind of disaster that shuts the port down, we want to open up as quickly as possible,” Holtz said. “With drones, we could get up there and fly and see if we see any cracks or anything that looks like structural damage. If we don’t see anything we could open up the bridge right away.”

    Hamburg Offers Peek into the Future

    While most ports’ use of drones is still in the nascent stages, a fascinating glimpse of the future will soon be on display at the Port of Hamburg, Germany’s largest seaport by volume.

    With the number of drones in use – not only at ports but everywhere else – expected to multiply significantly in coming years, concerns about the need to manage drone traffic is ratcheting up in tandem. Operating multiple flights in the same airspace currently is unsafe, and operators are typically required to go through a lengthy approval process before they can launch – making widespread drone use impractical for uses such as making frequent shipboard deliveries on short notice.

    To that end, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency has established a concept called U-Space – essentially an air traffic control system or framework of rules and procedures that will allow flights in areas with a high volume of drones to be carried out easily, safely, efficiently and in coordination with manned air traffic. EU member nations are required to implement U-Space by the beginning of 2023.

    At the Port of Hamburg, private-sector air navigation technology companies and public partners have created the first test site for an air traffic control system. Called the U-Space Sandbox, the €1 million project is funded in part by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. The public could get a glimpse of the pilot project during test flights in October.

    Onward and Upward

    Air traffic systems like the one being tested in Hamburg could open up a whole new set of applications for drones, which are now restricted by FAA Visual Line of Site (VLOS) regulations that require drone pilots to be able to maintain visual contact with their unmanned craft.

    But other hurdles stand in the way of ports employing drones on a widespread basis. Some ports are limited in their use of drones simply because of their proximity to facilities where nearby drone operations would pose issues – for example, at the Port of Boston’s Conley Terminal, located by Logan International Airport.

    Other barriers, according to ideaForge Technology’s Gautam, include evolving regulatory frameworks that create uncertainty for ports, concerns over data security issues – particularly in the case of drones manufactured outside of the United States – and the need for more trained and certified remote pilots.

    Meanwhile, at the Port of Long Beach, Holtz’s operation continues to grow. Earlier this year she was looking to add a fourth member to the port’s drone team, plus a third drone equipped with a night-vision camera for use in the event of a nighttime emergency.

    “I think in the next five years you’re going to see most ports having some kind of drone program – if for nothing else on the construction and engineering side – because it saves money,” Holtz said. “Most surveying companies are using drones because it saves money. In terminals, when you’re constantly rebuilding terminals or making new terminals, you’re turning over so much dirt, that’s when drones are a cost saver if you’re just trying to measure dirt. And it’s safer. I think we’re going to see it more and more.”

corpus christi drone research aims


Imagine this: As thick fog descends over the harbor, drones laden with thermal imaging and GPS technology take to the air to shadow vessels, communicating data and visual images to ships’ pilots in real time and guiding them safely into port.

It might sound like science fiction – and truth be told, it’s still in the early stages – but enlisting unmanned aircraft as navigation tools is the goal of a research partnership between the Port of Corpus Christi Authority (PCCA) and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMUCC).

The challenge: Fog can shut down the Port of Corpus Christi 20-25 days a year, mostly in the winter months. When visibility is reduced to zero, nothing moves, in or out. Commerce at the nation’s No. 1 port in terms of total revenue tonnage comes to a standstill.

The solution: TAMUCC is home to the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft System Center of Excellence and Innovation (LSUASC) – one of only seven FAA-designated drone test sites in the U.S. – and the Conrad Blucher Institute for Surveying and Science, which has expertise in sensor technology that aids vessel captains navigating in and out of the port and along the coastline.

“If we can eliminate fog as an impediment to vessel transits by using drone technology that gives a pilot real-time data and full visibility, that’s something that could really have a broader benefit,” said PCCA CEO Sean Strawbridge. “When you think about being shut down for fog 25 out of 365 days a year, that falls right to the bottom line for our customers and certainly for ourselves.”

While the technology is still in the conceptual stages, Strawbridge envisions a drone navigation system that would use FLIR (Forward-Looking InfraRed) and spatial GPS systems to capture data and imagery in flight and transmit it in real time to ship pilots using handheld tablets that give them a clear view of the socked-in channel.

The drones would be operated out of the harbormaster’s office – the air traffic control tower for the harbor, so to speak – and the data they provide would be integrated with the port’s automatic identification system (AIS) and pilots’ shipboard navigation systems.

The drone project is just the latest example of a longstanding collaboration between the port and the university that goes back more than two decades, said Philippe Tissot, interim director of the Blucher Institute.

The institute has developed yet-to-be-implemented artificial intelligence-based fog prediction models that are superior to current forecasting tools. The institute is also nearing completion of a network of visibility sensors along the coastline that provides vessel captains with accurate real-time data on weather, currents, wave heights and other metrics – including visibility during fog events – that are critical to safe navigation.

PCCA had deployed unmanned aerial and underwater craft in recent years to assess hurricane damage and identify debris such as sunken recreational boats that could pose a threat to navigation. The idea of using drones to help pilots “see” through the fog grew out of the port’s earlier use of drones to help port police keep a better eye on PCCA’s sprawling 30,000-acre complex – especially in low-visibility conditions.

“We thought, ‘Hey, if these drones are flying during fog days and giving situational awareness for the police department, why can’t they be flying during those same days and giving that data to pilots,’” Strawbridge said. “I’m not the tech guy, but it sounded cool enough that I said, ‘This is something we certainly would like to lean in on a little bit.’”

Development of the data-gathering technology and instrumentation for the seeing-eye drones is probably more than a few years out. But once that happens and Lone Star engineers configure an unmanned craft to accommodate the hi-tech gear and power system, flight testing could begin within days inside a new 85-by-85-by-50-foot netted enclosure that the center cut the ribbon on in April, said Joe Henry, LSUASC’s associate director for business development.

“We could move very quickly from the time Philippe and his team say, ‘We’ve got the magic box, we need you to strap this onto a drone,’” Henry said. Initial engineering of the drone in flight would ensure the craft is able to launch successfully, hover, perform basic maneuvers and has enough onboard power to stay aloft long enough to collect actionable data and imagery.

Of course, extensive testing would be required before such a drone navigation system could be approved by the FAA and put to work under real-world conditions. One key question that will need to be answered, according to PCCA’s Strawbridge: “Can the pilots get comfortable enough with using that data? Will they be ready to adopt that type of unconventional use of technology, because you’re moving vessels and you can’t get it wrong once.”

Despite the challenges, nobody disagrees the drone research could produce technology that benefits ports around the world – starting with socked-in Corpus Christi, where Tissot estimates losses could reach the multimillion-dollar range depending on the length of the fog events.

“That’s pretty significant over a year,” Henry said. “If you can safely move during limited visibility, one might argue that’s potentially game-changing in and of itself at an enterprise level.”