“Co-ordination and risk-management is the challenge, not technology” – Erwin Verstraelen, Antwerp Port

Erwin Verstraelen is the Chief Digital and Innovation Officer of Antwerp Port. Last September, the largest port area in the world comprising 12,068 hectares or the size of 20,000 football fields, welcomed the SAFIR 13-Group Consortium (Safe and Flexible Integration of Initial U-Space Services in a Real Environment) for trials. The consortium comprises 13 public and private organisations including Amazon Prime Air, Unifly, C-Astral, Skeyes and Helicus. SAFIR had been selected by the Single European Sky ATM Research Joint Undertaking (SESAR JU) to demonstrate integrated drone traffic management for a broad range of use cases. The goal is to contribute to the EU regulatory process for unmanned craft and drive forward the deployment of interoperable, harmonised and standardised drone services across Europe. He talks here to Chris Stonor.

Tell me more about the SAFIR trial

We regularly invite new technologies to demonstrate their potential from sensors to remote-controlled barges and drones. For SAFIR this is a cool place as the port is full of potential drone applications. Up to five unmanned craft flew at any one time without mishap, so we proved simultaneous flight is feasible and safe around a port.

What drones were used in the trial?

An entire range from tethered to catapulted, four propellors, eight propellors. Amazon brought their own drones, they were really impressive. Wow!

For the trial we had installed a fully operational drone control centre within the port at a location close to one of the locks. The Sky Operation Monitor team were there, checking that the commercial airspace was safe, whilst working alongside the Consortium members responsible for the flights. The Unifly UTM platform was used. We watched multiple craft fly at the same time, creating various scenarios of flying around each other. Meanwhile, port security attended and checked all the risks. Seeing all these different and complex interactions occur, not forgetting the weather… is it going to rain, the wind speed etc. I realised the co-ordination and risk-management is the challenge and not the technology.

Are there any drones more suited for use in the port than others? 

They need to cope with reasonable wind speeds, withstand rain, take-off and land within a fully automated area. We are looking at more sophisticated-type drones, both military and civil, given the enormous size of the port. Autonomy in flight is a key requirement. At first, we will hire the craft and not purchase them as their technology is moving at such a rapid rate. This allows us to try out a variety to see which are best suited.

Have other world ports shown interest in the outcome of the SAFIR trial?

Most ports that I know of see the potential of deploying drones as they can be used for many different purposes. Antwerp is part of a network of 15 deep seaports around the world called Chainport. We are regularly exchanging information. We all see the drone’s potential and that the technology is quite feasible, but the missing piece is the need to relax regulation. Drones could be a real boon for ports.

What regulations need to be changed?

At present, beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) is not allowed. For the SAFIR trial the Ministry of Mobility had to sign documents to bypass present laws. That’s good for trials but not for having a sound eco-system for drones covering commercial usage. There has to be more flexibility.

How can you persuade the legislators to relax these drone flight rules?

At the end of last year I attended a drone conference in Amsterdam. I gave a talk, a debrief of the SAFIR trial, and I felt the room become energised. Then throughout the day, session after session, you had other people say, ‘Yeah, but… yeah, but…’ so by the end the excitement had been replaced by depression. Someone came up to me and said, ‘Listen, I felt so energised after your talk, now I feel frustrated.’ I went home and realised that frequent drone deployment was not going to happen in 2020. Administrators are afraid of the potential risks. A man from the German security forces that operate helicopters commented, ‘You don’t want to know how many near collisions we’ve had with drones.’ And this is primarily driven by Sunday morning flyers who go outside unaware of the risks and regulations. So, what is the actual issue? Everyone is afraid of that fatal crash which could send the development of unmanned craft back many years. Understandable, but how do you break-through the gridlock?

How can this concern be overcome?

First, we look at the challenge in the eye and not naively walk around in some fantasy world. For example, the port has the second largest chemical cluster in the world, so we have an advisory council that asks us safety questions like, ‘What can you do when a drone goes berserk or if it’s about to crash? Do you blow it up or does it have a parachute?’ As the port area is under the control of the port authority, where safety and security are key responsibilities, so you have a unique opportunity to kick-start drone deployments already overseen by an existing authority aware of the dangers and in a less densely populated area.

For such deployment, each drone must have a tracker. We have carried out such experiments around the port and there are more trials planned. To have safe drone flights you require a detection system as there are also rogues being flown in the port area. Some are even being used as part of criminal acts like burglary. We had recent evidence of that. Then there is interception technology and our local police has experience in testing these technologies.

To get a vibrant drone ecosystem up and running, you begin with small steps like low intensity, low risk flights. For example, inspection of high voltage lines or a windmill or bridge. Then you go for a higher intensity, but still low risk, inspection flights over the water and so on. There is no public condemnation of drones flying around a port. It is accepted. Yet across a city this is a different story. So we need to demonstrate the drone’s value gradually and, of course, if the craft is used for medical deliveries where a port accident has occurred and there are ten people requiring help, and drones can reach them faster, no-one will oppose that either.

We have been experimenting using thermal cameras to discover oil spills on the water. We are the fifth largest bunkering port in the world and accidents can occur when ships refuel. The sooner spills are spotted, the cheaper it is to clean them up. We have carried out a pilot with the University of Antwerp and thermal drones can detect up to 85% of oil spillage. Recently, we had a few spills in the river alongside a terminal.

So, around a port you can do a lot, especially if there are seven or eight drone flights a day. And then there is assisting local emergency services like the fire brigade and police. During the next six months we have various trials planned aligned with a private 5G network.

What about drone deliveries within your port, as happens in Singapore?

I have a brother-in-law who is CEO of a shipping supply company. I asked him that question and he doesn’t see a repetitive opportunity yet. The items are too heavy for the present drones available. Yes, for small articles like medical supplies, it is viable, but so far nobody in our community has raised the subject. Certainly, it is an area I would like to cover. Some of our chemical plants need to send samples to laboratories, for example, so why not create a pick-up drone service? That would be feasible.

What is the actual ‘drone reality’, right now, at the Port of Antwerp?

The final report of SAFIR should arrive any time now. It will trigger new legislation that, hopefully, will come into effect on January 1st. This will be a big step for us. It means that instead of gaining permission for every drone flight, it will now be scenario-based rather than risk-assessed. So, if you’re seeking approval for a high-voltage line inspection and you get the green light, then it means you can carry out as many similar inspections as required. Meanwhile, since SAFIR, local police have carried out a drone trial across Antwerp city, where a drone successfully flew over the metropolis to simulate several use cases such as detection of a human in a building, tracking of suspects etc..

Meanwhile, during lockdown, the port wanted to deploy a fully automated drone for checking if social distancing measures were being respected at a big truck parking area. We never gained approval even with a 60-page explanation document. This was frustrating. I was told there had been an accident during a past automated trial, although I am unaware of where that happened. I must accept this is not the right time for a quantum leap in deploying drones.

How did the public react to seeing a drone fly over Antwerp city?

I do not know. In my view, when drones are used by the emergency services, the public accepts this. Yet, I don’t believe the day will come when pizzas and other food items are delivered. To me, that is complete nonsense. If this does happen, I give it just a few hours before a drone is shot down. They can be so goddamn annoying, especially their noise. And what of one falling from the sky and injuring somebody? There is no public acceptance for this. In remote areas of the world, it makes sense, but not over a densely populated area. The same applies with air taxis. I am very sorry, but no. I am highly sceptical of seeing these things happen on a wide scale.

What can you see occurring?

I see drones being deployed for medical deliveries, used by emergency services, for environment-related issues which, by the way, are an important aspect of our port like the use of sniffer drones monitoring ship emissions, spotting and filming oil spillages etc.. we have 270 safety buoys in the harbour; they reside in lockers; there is a sensor, so if you open one, this triggers an alarm. Two reasons: First, a buoy has been taken to help someone in the water or it’s been stolen. We can immediately send out a drone to find out. Also, inspection flights for a wide range of use cases have great potential.


Antwerp port/Shutterstock


A year from now what do you realistically see drones being employed for in Antwerp Port?

That we have various and regular low-risk, low intensity, ongoing flights around the port including different types of inspection, where the train has left the station.

Will the deployment of drones save ports like yours money?

In terms of efficiency, yes. A drone can quickly warn us of a problem in the port and we can immediately deploy our people to that area. A good example are oil spills. We presently spend a huge sum cleaning these up, but with drones able to spot the spillage early, we hope to halve this expenditure.

How can you change the public’s present perception of the negatives surrounding unmanned aircraft?

First, we must fully accept that risks are there. You cannot be naive about them. This is the most important area and one which the industry must fully focus on, if we are to change the public’s perception. Little will alter otherwise. The moment a crash occurs and someone is injured or even killed (a click of thumb and finger). Until the public feel safe with drones flying above their heads, pizza deliveries, air taxis etc.. as I said before, are just not going to happen over densely populated areas.

As a visionary and pioneer how do you view yourself?

I try to be pragmatic, but ambitious at the same time. One of my main achievements concerning new technologies is to inspire people to move from a “yes, but…” mentality which is typical from governments, as they only see risks to regulate, to a “what if…” mentality. And if that mindset then grows in your organisation anything is possible.

My grandfather used to say, it is not by shooting into the ground that you catch a pigeon. If you are not realistically ambitious, you are going no-where. If you keep saying ‘yeah, but, yeah, but… we tried it in the past, I told you so, blah, blah, blah…’ Of course, we will fail, but you learn from failure. Technology is evolving at an exponential rate, so we try again in 6 months, 12 months or even 18 months… Never say ‘We tried it in the past, so there’s no point attempting it again.’ That is the biggest mistake you can make.

Coming from a shipping family, Erwin Verstraelen trained as a maritime transport economist and was appointed to his post in November 2017. A year later ICT Magazine Data News awarded him ‘Belgian CIO of the Year’ for his clear strategic vision and ambition for digitising the port. And this June, Verstraelen was chosen as the ‘European Digital Leader of the Year 2020 (public sector) by CIOnet. “My job feels like a dream come true,“ he declared. “It allows me to implement the 21st century version of a port authority.” The use of drones is an integral part of Verstraelen’s vision. He explained, “The port has always been a hotspot for innovation and pushing back boundaries. With my team, we are now creating a playing field on which we innovate and dare to experiment. A place where you can be ambitious in spotting and seizing opportunities. We hope that drones will play a major role in our future.” 





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