Located in the heart of Europe, Belgium’s Port of Antwerp is the second largest seaport on the continent. Covering more than 120sq kilometers, housing at least 900 companies, and employing more than 144,000 people, the Port of Antwerp is Belgiums greatest economic contributor. In 2010, it was announced that the port would be receiving $1.6 billion Euros over the next 15 years to improve facilities and operations, creating a Port of the Future. Part of the funds, port CEO Jacques Vandermeiren said, would be a $35 million Euro investment in innovative technology projects. One aspect of improving the port is creating a visual digital imprint of daily activities.
The port already has a network of over 600 cameras that permanently keep track of what is happening daily. These cameras link up with an AI Computer Vision platform that increases security and maintenance parameters. In February of 2021, the Port of Antwerp announced that they would begin adding another level of visual data processing to their Port of the Future in a partnership with Belgium’s DroneMatrix. The Port of Antwerp had already participated in Belgium’s SAFIR Drone Traffic Management program, positioning the site as the next logical step in Belgium’s mission to implement drone technologies. Initiated in 2018, the SAFIR program was a consortium of 13 public and private organizations working towards the safe integration of drones in Belgium.
Niels Vanlaer, Business Continuity Manager for the Port of Antwerp, said that the first round of testing for the new drone program has been completed. This included applying all data collected during the SAFIR program, complying with all safety regulations, and ensuring the maturity of the drone hardware and software. The port and DroneMatrix are now in the process of establishing a port-wide integrated drone program, one they expect to be fully operational by the end of the year. The drones will be used to routinely monitor the port for security and inspect structural stability. These routine operations will be done autonomously. However, the drone will also be sent out on demand to inspect for oil leaks or assist in emergency situations. These autonomous drone operations will be enabled by DroneMatrix’s YACOB drone, docking station, and software platform.
The YACOB platform is a complete drone solutions system. Lander Vanwelkenhuyzen, general manager of DroneMatrix explained the uniqueness of the YACOB platform. “We’re talking about an autonomous drone and an intelligent docking station, which are centrally managed from a web platform. The YACOB drone has AI on board, which is to say the drone can detect and follow people, objects, and trucks. In addition, we have the YACOB docking station, which is a safe, climate-controlled home base for the drone, where it gets wirelessly charged.” Through the secure web software program, coordinates of the route for the drone to take are uploaded to YACOB’s onboard computer. When mission ready, the software program automatically alerts the docking station to open and release the drone’s launch shelf. The program then launches the drone, which wirelessly transmits live data to the program. When the drone has completed its objectives, it automatically returns to the docking station. The station receives directions from the web program to intercept the drone. The launch shelf extends, the drone lands, and it begins to charge. The entire process is done without a pilot controlling the drone.
The drones will give Port of Antwerp managers full situational awareness of the massive complex. Having an eye in the sky will allow teams to manage dock happenings, keep an eye on floating waste, monitor for any environmental breaches, and be an ultimate security system. Annick De Ridder, port alderman stated that in creating a Port of the Future, drones will be a pivotal key in merging safety and technology. “We are doing all we can for a safe harbor and drones will become indispensable for this in the near future,” she says. “Innovation and digitization are crucial to guarantee the long-term sustainable growth of our port. Port of Antwerp is, therefore, the driving force behind devising and realizing solutions for the challenges of tomorrow. The port is the ideal environment to test and further develop innovative technology.”