From Unmanned Systems Magazine —Unmanned systems a valuable part of port security

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Terrorist attacks come in all forms, and the worldwide shipping industry is scrambling to find safe harbors.

In June 2017, the Danish shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk was crippled by a massive cyberattack that hit 17 of its terminals worldwide, including one of its busiest on the west coast.

The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach together make for the nation’s largest and busiest seaport, handling nearly 40 percent of all American imported goods. The Maersk attack forced an unprecedented three-day closure of the Port of L.A.’s largest terminal.

“The cargo that goes through the port of L.A. touches every congressional district,” says Democratic Rep. Nanette Barragan of Carson, California, who sits on the House Committee on Homeland Security. In October, this committee took field testimony from officials of both ports, as well as comments from members of the Trump administration and the longshore union. 

“More than $270 billion worth of cargo passes through the Port of L.A. each year. The entire national economy relies on it being safe and secure,” she says.

The committee’s ultimate goal: to determine what the government and the maritime industry are doing to keep the nation’s ports safe. According to the committee, U.S. seaports account for 26 percent of the nation’s economic activity, and any kind of attack could significantly disrupt the nation’s economy.

Federal and state authorities work together to provide security to the nation’s ports. When the U.S. Coast Guard became part of the Department of Homeland Security following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it developed a Deployable Operations Group, essentially a special operations team whose mission objectives include the protection of port and shipping assets.

It’s a valuable federal effort, and one that is accompanied by state and local law enforcement agencies, but often the first line of port defense comes from the ports themselves. To keep these busy waters safe, ports have long deployed remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to assist in harbor security. As technology improves, unmanned vehicles of many varieties — including autonomous unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), which aren’t connected by tethers — promise to expand and strengthen the defensive capabilities of ports around the world. 

Lt. Rosario Ferrara knows the value of both airborne and waterborne unmanned vehicles. As a member of the Los Angeles Port Police, he has seen first-hand how aerial drones can provide useful views on hazardous material spills, and how ROVs can assist in critical infrastructure checks.

When it comes to dive operations, Ferrara says the ROVs offer rapid deployment and the ability to see things divers simply cannot detect with their eyes.

“Anytime we deploy a dive team here at the Los Angeles Port Police, part of the responsibility is to search critical infrastructure underwater. We have ships that come in and whether it’s a cruise ship or container ship, there are a lot of times we search it randomly, or sometimes we have some intel and we search a ship specifically. There are times when we’ll send an ROV in to take a look at certain aspects of the ship where we don’t send a diver. It’ll help clear an area that the diver didn’t get to for us. The ROV helps bridge that gap for us,” he says.

“While we do use ROVs a lot, we’ve researched UUVs to help with some of the sonar imaging we do here at the port,” says Ferrara, adding, “But we don’t actually have a UUV just yet. Hopefully that’s something we can integrate into our equipment.”

The Port of Long Beach, along with the neighboring Port of Los Angeles, is one of the busiest shipping ports in the U.S. Photo: The Port of Long Beach
The Port of Long Beach, along with the neighboring Port of Los Angeles, is one of the busiest shipping ports in the U.S. Photo: The Port of Long Beach

Accidents can happen

Another situation where the L.A. Port Police uses ROVs is when an accident happens at the port. In January 2017, for example, a helicopter carrying an aerial photographer crashed into the port waters. The U.S. Coast Guard and L.A. Port Police searched for the wreckage but could not find it. Sonar equipment was finally used to locate the wreckage.

“Once we locate the damage, we’ll send the ROV down to take a look at the landscape of what the divers are going to get themselves into,” says Ferrera. “It helps us capture a shot of what the underwater environment looks like.”

Ferrara says UUVs could accomplish challenging tasks such as these, but minus the tether that ROVs must maintain for power, navigation, and telemetry. Ferrara believes the first such purchase by his department will likely be a UUV to augment sonar operations conducted at the port.

“We periodically do sonar runs of the shipping channels in different areas of the port to determine if we see any anomalies that we need to move on. What the UUV would do is set a course or grid of an area you want searched and you can go back and review the imagery that the device picks up.”

Currently, the Port Police uses a patrol boat to pull a SeaKing Towfish, made by TriTech, that images the port bed with side-scan sonar. The boat must maintain a grid pattern to pick up contiguous imagery — not the easiest thing for a pilot to maintain when the boat is at the whim of changing currents and also keeping clear of shipping traffic. A side scan sonar-equipped UUV, says Ferrara, “would eliminate the boat from having to do that.”

“We definitely have a really good partnership with some of the local agencies that neighbor us here at the port,” says Ferrara. “We’re always kind of bouncing off ideas and best practices they’re doing versus what we’re doing. The intention when we buy this isn’t done blindly. We speak to many of our counterparts to see what they’ve looked at.”

Currently, the Port of Los Angeles uses ROVs provided by San Diego-based Teledyne SeaBotix. The Port of Long Beach and the Los Angeles Police Department use ROVs provided by VideoRay, a Philadelphia-based company.

ROVs and changing technology

“In the U.S., we work with the U.S. Coast Guard that protects all Tier 1 assets with Maritime Safety and Security teams,” says Chris Gibson, vice-president of sales, marketing, and business development for VideoRay. The company also works with several different navy and coast guard forces in other countries.

The growing use of unmanned vehicular technology by law enforcement agencies requires rapid response and deployment, and that also rings true for port security. VideoRay’s line of ROVs can be deployed quickly from a water craft or off the edge of a dock.

“You can operate it pretty easily from just about anywhere. The systems we make are designed to be easy to deploy, use, and maintain. You can essentially put it in the water, get eyes on what you need to see very quickly and respond accordingly,” says Gibson.

VideoRay ROVs are outfitted with a standard camera for visual inspection as well as other sensor options, such as a multi-beam sonar sensor that allows rapid and accurate inspection of a ship’s hull as well as port infrastructure, such as pilings.

Some agencies are using UUVs to run side-scan sonar surveys of their port assets, but real-time data response is still an issue.

“You can’t see that data until the ROV comes back to you. You have to download it, interpret it, and look for issues. With side-scan sonar, you can basically see it as it happens,” Gibson says. “We make equipment that can go through and find parasitic devices on ship hulls such as Limpet mines or people trying to smuggle drugs. Our tools make it easier for the Coast Guard to find these. We use radiation sensors and side-sonar that can go through the hull.

Port authorities are also responsible for mapping the bottom of their ports. Currently side-scan sonar is the most common tool used.

“As they go through and do that, they develop a baseline of objects in the water. As things disappear and reappear, they’ll go through and ‘truth’ them with an ROV,” says Gibson.

“The biggest issue with that is if you know where the objects are supposed to be, you can’t see the data until the AUV comes back to you,” Gibson says. “You have to download it, interpret it, and look for issues. With side-scan sonar, you can basically see it as it happens.”

Communications and line-of-sight issues are challenges in the development of UUVs. “Those are typical issues with operating UUVs. Sometimes they’ll get stuck or get lost. They all have good programs that allow them to be recovered, but if they get stuck in the mud, it can take them a while to work their way out,” says Gibson.

Despite these challenges, Gibson believes autonomy will become inevitable and ubiquitous. 

“One of the things coming is smart automation. You need to be able to fly and inspect things basically with a supervisor instead of a pilot. You have someone watching the telemetry and data instead of flying it. That advancement is actually happening now,” he says.

Gibson also sees virtual reality coming into play with underwater data.

“As the drones go through and collect information, they are bringing back data that allows someone to walk through thru data sets virtually.”

VideoRay’s ROVs can inspect not only the exteriors of a ship’s hull, but also the inner workings of a ship — ballast tanks, for examples.

“You have to do surveys and inspections of these ships’ interiors for classification societies and insurance companies. All of that is starting to be automated,” he points out.

A drone’s sensors can collect data well beyond the visual, and this data potentially can be returned for inspection through VR.

“The camera goes through and sees what the pilot would typically go through and see, but it’s capable of collecting a lot more. You can see things that when you’re plotting it you might not have seen,” Gibson says.

A flotilla of emergency response vessels performs a routine training mission in the Port of Los Angeles. Photo: Port of Los Angeles