Ports and Terminals: Security on the Cheap

Daniel Roythorne, BMT Group, helps discuss if autonomous robotic vessels are the future of port security?

Daniel RoythorneNew cost effective unmanned vehicles could be perfect for port operations, finds Stevie Knight

It is one thing to innovate but it’s quite another to make it attractive to the market, especially when it’s focused on an issue as diffuse as security.

“Some of this high tech security stuff can have a very big price tag which simply isn’t going to work for the average port. You have to make security systems reasonable: a multimillion-dollar solution just means people will say it’s easier to stick with a couple of guys on a runabout,” says Greg Atkinson of Eco Marine Power.

On the other hand, technology may be the only answer to those worrisome gaps in port security that are stubbornly resisting resolution: it’s worth noting that Tampa, Florida is putting in a fairly expensive radar system to help identify the boats that aren’t playing fair and signalling their whereabouts. Plus it’s invested in a novel integration system which ties up all the security information streams to give a picture that can detect anomalies – so if, for example, the radar picks up a small boat moving toward a restricted area at 0200 hrs, the cameras can be directed to the radar track to identify it.

But this kind of thing is expensive: the ballpark cost of both systems is around $1.25m.

This technology/price conundrum has resulted in a couple of initiatives aimed at implementing high tech security ‘on the cheap’ to plug the holes.

Closing gaps 

One such security gap is the waterfront: in many places waterside arrangements tend to rely on periodic lookout patrols, the area below the surface occasionally being supported by somewhat limited static devices.

However, an autonomous underwater vessel (AUV) project recently demonstrated at the port of Lisbon and Piraeus might hold part of the answer. Very different from the deep sea Remotely Operated Vessels used by the oil and gas field sector, these small, 1.8m fibreglass bullets are more properly ‘autonomous’ explains Daniel Roythorne of BMT, with signalling stations on the seabed that link the AUVs to the processing unit in the port which controls the search patterns. Plus of course they are able to recognise and avoid other vessels and obstacles.

The idea is that these AUVs will be able to go out and about in a port without drawing attention to themselves, keeping up a harbour patrol day and night and needing little human intervention. Eventually they will even be able to plug themselves in to an underwater recharging point rather than coming back to base “although realistically I think that this is four or five years off yet”, he says. 

The most important point is that these AUVs are not over specified, taking advantage of lower-priced, off the shelf items that will still do a reasonable job and be easy to source. The signalling stations use established modem technology “and even the manual controls are PlayStation joysticks, which is nice because everybody knows how to use them”.

Despite this, the recognition software is sophisticated: the BMT AUV can distinguish a diver from a dolphin at a distance of 100m, partly by the way it moves, although there is always the potential for the operator to take charge and investigate if the alarm sounds for something amiss. 

Bottom line for the basic set? “Each AUV is about E30,000 at present, but we are reasonably sure a port will be able to get substations, a couple of AUVs and the data processor in place for around E100,000 – we have put a lot of work in to make sure it’s not exorbitantly expensive,” says Mr Roythorne.

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Contact Information

Daniel Roythorne

BMT Group

Goodrich House

1 Waldegrave Road


TW11 8LZ