Security on the cheap

19 Aug 2014
Are autonomous robotic vessels the future of port security?

Unmanned: are autonomous robotic vessels the future of port security?

New 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.

 

Remote operations

The BMT project isn’t the only one thinking in terms of autonomous robotics – or budget.

Eco Marine’s ‘Aquarius’ unmanned surface vessel (USV) aims squarely at keeping innovation cost effective. For example, it’s autonomy comes from tying together established technologies such as lightweight materials, battery banks and flexible solar panels: without a crew to weigh it down the USV can just keep recharging the internal battery bank from the panels covering its upper surface without interrupting its duties.

At 6m long the USV is larger than the underwater AUVs developed by BMT, but similarly, it is being fitted with a package of sensors. These will collect data from both above and below the waterline, storing it or transmitting it back to ship or shore via wi-fi, mobile phone or satellite.

Further, it is adaptable: a shallow, 1m draft along with its low profile will allow the USV to slip through most urban waterways, rivers, harbour and coastal areas as well as keep going in open water. As it’s quiet, it can take on security sweeps for maritime park surveillance or coastal border patrols, for which it can lower its antennae and go into ‘stealth’ mode.

Maybe the most important element supporting its flexibility is the established software architecture: the KEI3240 platform is already used on vessels ranging from tugs to tankers. Mr Atkinson explains that the biggest gain from the generic platform is that different sensors can be plugged in, changing or upgrading Aquarius’ abilities.

 

Multi-purpose

Both BMT and EMP are aware that security is not the only selling point of these autonomous craft. “If you are going to make the investment, you probably don’t want to stick to just the one application, you have to make it multipurpose,” says Mr Atkinson, pointing to the USV’s ability to take on pollution monitoring and surveys.

Mr Roythorne admits that to be realistic, it may be that a port will want BMT’s AUV system to do more than a security job. After all, with a little customising it would be capable of investigating underwater assets, pollution monitoring and even keeping an eye on sedimentation, a factor which has a nasty habit of catching some ports out.

The one thing that all these initiatives share is their search for common ground. Both waterfront and supply chain systems like ARENA are putting in place as much generic architecture as possible, not only so that they can network existing sensors together but so that the whole thing becomes future proof, flexible enough to be upgraded or adapted to a new task, new focus or even link up with other initiatives.

It’s a hopeful sign that all these projects are now beginning to bear fruit: it seems that by standing on each others shoulders security systems are slowly climbing out of the seemingly eternal circle of broadening reach and rising costs.

 

Opening out the security umbrella

Port supply chain security has also been a cause for concern as trucks, trains and ships are often wide open targets for criminal or even terrorist activity. However monitoring technology – of the kind deployed on static assets – hasn’t so far been available at a remotely affordable cost.

“As a result, there has been an uneasy acceptance that in certain parts of the world, piracy, hijacking or theft are facts of commercial life," says Maria Andersson, technical co-ordinator of an EC backed research project called ARENA, which has been developing a workable solution that could cover a wide swath of the supply chain.

The aim is to give an early warning: installed on a truck, the system will alert the driver to potential threats as burglary, vandalism and theft ahead of time. Installed on a ship, it will alert the crew to piracy attempts before the hijackers engage.

Again it’s based on established kit like visual and infra-red video cameras, radar, acoustic and seismic units. The diversity is important as complementary, non-identical sensors mean it is easier to verify the threat – too high a level of false alarms and people will, after all, begin to ignore it.

ARENA also uses other projects as building blocks, including software that automatically detects abnormal human behaviour in crowded spaces, plus a marine system able to automatically characterise and track any object of significance and alert the authorities.

However, it still has some holes. The fewer the bystanders to a vehicle, the easier the system can interpret what’s going on, so it is easier to detect a threat in a quiet railway siding than when standing by a busy platform. For the same reason, trains may, on the whole, prove easier to protect than trucks which often park in places where there is innocent foot traffic.

Despite this, it is pointing the way toward a future where even mobile assets could feasibly be covered by an affordable security umbrella.

 

   

Links to related companies and recent articles ...