In recent years, aerial drones have become a common addition to port and terminal security systems. But strategic limitations mean that many operators are now moving from UAVs to ASVs as maritime tech capabilities accelerate.
In the UK, it is estimated that 95 percent of all trade by volume and 90 percent by value is carried by sea. As economic hubs, major ports and terminals are a critical part of our national infrastructure and are subject to the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code (ISPS), requiring round-the-clock surveillance.
Threats to the safe and continuous operation of ports exist from domestic and foreign terrorism, accidents and incidents, malicious criminality, illicit and illegal trade of goods and people, civil disruption, and accidental intrusions into restricted areas.
The role of port security teams is to monitor and protect the port facilities, enable the safe operation of the waterways, and ensure a safe working environment for employees and members of the public.
For this reason, aerial drones, known as UAVs, have proved popular, but five years on from the first deployments, the limitations of the technology mean it is now time to rethink their suitability as a primary response mechanism.
UAV’s are limited by minimal operational capabilities
While UAVs can provide unique fields of view and a high-speed interception capability, they can only ever supplement existing security measures.
UAV’s operational capabilities are hampered by their short range of 50km or less, a low flight time of 3-4 hours, and offer zero persistence. The maritime use cases for drones also struggle with the right launch conditions, with existing port users experiencing regular groundings of their drone fleet as most UAVs are unable to operate in high winds or heavy rain, and limited by minimum temperatures of -10c.
While enhancements in battery technology mean that the duration of drone flights is improving, it is unlikely to ever reach continual airborne presence unless tethered.
Additionally, most drones are regulated by civilian aviation authorities, unlike waterways which are regulated by the port authority. Aerial drones are heavily restricted by aviation regulations on commercial uses over ports and vessels - including restrictions on the line of sight and night flying.
In the UK, UAV regulation is governed by the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in UK Airspace: Guidance. This guidance, also known as CAP722, states that UAVs operating in the UK must meet at least the same safety and operational standards as manned aircraft. The CAA has only in the last few months given the go-ahead to the first beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) command & control solution - with full regulatory change expected to take years.
In addition to regulatory challenges, due to their size and low payload capacity, drones cannot carry radar systems. As the drone does not have the power to process data onboard, information has to be relayed to the operator, leading to delays in automated threat and anomaly detection. This means that drone operators are reliant on visual identification which means you are limited to the range at which you can identify potential targets to intercept and investigate.
There is of course the option to use drones to get close in at high speeds once a target has been identified, those drones could in the future be deployed from ASVs.
ASV’s offer a true long-endurance security capability
With UAVs unable to offer persistence, intercept, or deterrent capabilities, a Port operator will still need traditional guard vessels. By comparison, a swarm of AO Guard vessels at 7m with LRAD loud hailers and laser dazzlers provides non-lethal deterrent options.
The AO Guard ASV is particularly focused on the guard vessel market, supporting security services with the ability to provide continual environmental monitoring of water and air quality. The vessel is zero-carbon emission and designed to operate as an autonomous swarm of vessels - providing maximum operational coverage at reduced costs.
Because of the huge amount of power onboard our vessels, we can process data onboard and meaning that threat and anomaly detection can be done by the onboard AI systems.
Additionally, with a 3-tonne payload capacity, the AO Guard can undertake other activities including:
Waterway perimeter patrols, providing situational awareness beyond the shoreline for purposes of vessel navigation and security and completing the existing network of surveillance cameras
Anomaly and threat detection
Threat engagement and deterrence with long persistence
Spill detection using Ai computer vision to detect oil and discharge sheen
Routine and on-demand inspections of marine equipment and infrastructure
Coastal and sealine patrols to secure vessels navigation
Rapid incident response, supporting intelligent decision-making in real-time time
Water and air quality sensors provide environmental and ecological monitoring
Moving to ASV 2.0
Future iterations of the AO Guard vessel could provide further core capabilities including:
Continual water quality sampling with data processing onboard. This would enable enhanced spill management and response
Harbour and port mapping, track sediment flow and supporting dredging
Advanced Ai for object detection including person in the water, debris, and marine mammals
Fire fighting capabilities with a high-pressure pump for waterside support of major incidents - ensuring personnel can remain at a safe distance
The substantial power benefits of ASVs supplement the physical presence on the scene in the water and enable port authorities to increase responsiveness whilst decreasing risk to people and operations.