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Photo: U.S.Navy
Photo: U.S.Navy

Should unmanned vehicles play a role in port safety and security? Absolutely.

The military, scientific, oil and gas industries have certainly adopted the use of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV) or Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) primarily for underwater survey and environmental observations. The port of Um Qasr, Iraq was cleared of mines in 2003 in record time during Operation Iraqi Freedom using UUVs to identify the mine-like objects prior to rendering them safe. This article explores the value of unmanned vehicles (surface and underwater) in port security applications.

Safety and security within a port is just as much about monitoring and understanding the hazards and risks associated with the underwater environment as it is with the landside of the port property. As ships get larger and drafts get deeper, maneuverability within a port is tighter. Ship’s hulls are more likely to “kiss” the bottom of a port or strike uncharted bottom rubble as the clearance between the ship’s hull and harbor bottom is reduced. As a hydrographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Alaska, this author charted and dived on hundreds of discarded items of significant size within harbors. These items were left behind as a result of activities during WW II. How and why can UUVs assist port owner/operators in maintaining a safe and secure port environment?

UUVs can gather critical decision support information to both law enforcement and port officials in an inconspicuous manner.

When the port owns and operates the UUV, they do not have to rely on outside resources to gather time critical port safety and security information.

USVs and UUVs can be inexpensive to make and are already in the hands of US adversaries. Swarm strike tactics with these vehicles have been witnessed in other countries in the past decade and military experts think it is only a matter of time before UVs and tactics are used against our high value assets at home and abroad.

Unmanned systems conference 2014 – Israel

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UUVs can be rapidly deployed to locate and scan ships hulls prior to arrival in the port. Anomalies found during hull surveys serve to alert USCG and port security officials of parasitic devices located on running gear or the ships hulls PRIOR to the ship arriving in port.

UUVs carry sophisticated sensors, payloads and capabilities such as sonars, cameras and manipulator arms that support multiple missions.

UUVs can be deploy remotely supporting underwater surveillance and work effectively in ports under large dock platforms, and ice covered areas

UUVs can work in hazardous environments, such as oil or chemical spills, to determine how widespread and what direction and depth the spill is moving through the water. In these dirty environments, it is best to use unmanned platforms that can be easily cleaned to reduce the likelihood of hazardous exposures to humans and critical assets.

Sensor suites aboard the UUV can measure water currents and salinity in critical areas of a port. Salinity measurements are essential to container loading calculations for ships in depth challenged ports. A post-panamax (or Neo-panamax) vessel’s tremendous length, beam and draft make it much less maneuverable in confined entrance channels and relatively shallow berths. Neo-panamax vessel owner/operators are more likely to choose those ports that offer up-to-date critical hydrographic and oceanographic information for safe docking and quick turnaround times. Near-real time channel and at-dock depths, tides, currents and salinity could be included in a port information package.