Drones at the Port: How UAVs Will Transform Port Operations

Categories: Port Drayage.

If you find yourself at the Port of Los Angeles this year, you might notice something unusual in the sky.

Not a bird, not a plane, but a drone — unmanned aerial vehicles will start flying over the Port of LA in 2020.

The Port of LA is usually a no-drone zone. However, following a deadly 2017 helicopter crash, the Los Angeles Port Police have secured permission from the Board of Los Angeles Harbor Commissioners to use drones to replace certain helicopter missions.

Commercial UAVs have become big business in the last few years. Drones are already having a transformative effect on agriculture, energy, construction, and many other industries.

The drones at the port of LA will be used in a limited capacity for now, and only by law enforcement and harbor authorities. But we believe this is just the beginning; in a few years, drones will be a common sight at ports around the world.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways drones are being used at ports today, and how they’ll be used in the future.

Security and Surveillance

In the Port of LA and around the world, police and other authorities are using drones to assist with law enforcement activities.

Drones equipped with video cameras (as well as other sensors like infrared and thermal cameras) can give authorities an eye in the sky to help catch potential security risks.

Compared to helicopters, drones can fly at lower altitudes, more often, and at a lower cost, making them a major asset in security and surveillance.

Regulatory Enforcement

In addition to security, drones can be used by regulators to enforce environmental rules like the IMO 2020 sulphur emissions regulations.

Drones are already being used to catch illegal emitters in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway, and the technology is currently being tested in China.

It works by flying the drone through the smoke emitted by ships on their way into port, taking samples that are analyzed for sulphur content. The whole process takes only a few minutes from start to finish.

As ports around the world commit to reducing harmful emissions, we expect the use of these “sniffer” drones to increase.

First Response

Thanks to their portability, agility, and minimal takeoff and landing requirements, drones are indispensable in search and rescue operations.

Authorities are using UAVs in maritime search and rescue ops in order to locate survivors and feed information back to manned helicopters and lifeboats. Drones can fly in dangerous conditions without risking human lives, making them extremely valuable for rescue teams. This technology is currently being tested in the US and the UK.

In addition, drones are being used worldwide to aid in disaster relief operations. Following a major disaster like a hurricane or earthquake, drones can be used to search for survivors and quickly assess the damage.

This technology could be instrumental in bringing ports back online quickly following a disaster by identifying downed power lines, damaged equipment, and gas leaks from the air, even if the conditions on the ground are impassable.

Supplying Ships

Delivery drones like the ones Amazon is testing as part of their Prime Air program aren’t yet ready to deliver packages to consumers’ doors. However, parcel-carrying drones are currently being put to use in specialized contexts, such as supplying ships anchored at port.

In Singapore, Airbus Skyways Drones are being tested for shore-to-ship deliveries. These drones, capable of carrying payloads up to four kilograms, are capable of quickly delivering medical supplies, spare parts, and other important equipment to ships up to three kilometers from the port.

More Applications for Drones at the Port

The uses for drones at the port aren’t limited to the applications described above. Maritime drones can also be used for…

  • Operations and traffic control
  • Aerial mapping (photogrammetry)
  • Volume-tracking of cargo
  • Mapping and monitoring construction
  • Inspecting dangerous or hard-to-reach areas

Whether or not drones are “the future of logistics” remains to be seen. But one thing’s for sure: drones are carving out a place in port operations as part of a larger shift toward automation, and we’re only beginning to see how they’ll impact the shipping industry.

Contact GlobeCon, the experienced logistics pros at the Port of LA.