Are they providing more security and safety, or are they posing a security threat? The answer, of course, could be either. If ever there was an example of regulation being needed, but of one-size-fits-all regulation definitely not being the answer, this is it.
Autonomous drones are being used in ports and industrial sites to secure fences and perimeters, carry out inspections, check cargo handling equipment, monitor shipping, and a whole host of other safety and security benefits.
But drones can also be used to carry drugs over prison walls, spy on sensitive operations, carry out a recce of a ship or terminal in preparation for theft (or worse), and even shift items illegally into or out of a container.
Martek Marine says commercial shipping is waking up to the growing threat that drones pose to the safety and security of vessels, and it has called for an urgent review of the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code to cover this.
Terrorist use of drones deploying explosives is already well documented and the potential for a drone to deliver an explosive charge through the deck of an oil/gas tanker or on a passenger ship with potentially catastrophic results is a stark reality, said the company.
“Vessels in port, at anchor or on coastal transits are potential ‘sitting ducks’ and currently powerless to know if/when they’re going to be attacked, let alone be in a position to defend against the threat.”
The ISPS code Part A para 1.3.3 mandates requirements “preventing the introduction of unauthorised weapons, incendiary devices or explosive to ships”, and Ship Security Plans need to address countermeasures to protect from such threats, Martek pointed out.
“The problem is that, up until now, aerial threats from drones have just not been considered.
“The ISPS code requirements for Ship Security Assessments (SSA) and Ship Security Plans (SSP) are specific and comprehensive regarding identification and countermeasures for all risks except aerial risks.”
Martek said that speaking to company security officers and ship security officers within its existing client base was alarming – “most were totally oblivious to the emerging threat of drones, nor had they even contemplated this threat in their periodic reviews of the SSA/SSP”.
Shirley Salzman, Marketing Director at Percepto, which is pioneering the use of commercial drones in industrial environments, said it was important to consider two approaches.
“First, how drones can be an operating tool – helping people who manage terminals and ports to be more efficient by providing more flexibility, improving security and being part of the maintenance of the operation. This is one way to look at drones and that is what we do.
“However, second is that as drones become much more available, they are becoming a threat. In critical sites such as military bases, there are already tools in place to counter drones and ensure they don’t just come flying over the facilities.
In prisons and other locations, drones are not allowed to be in that airspace and they have been intercepted. But there are a lot of problems.”
Someone can literally sit at home and operate a very simple drone – it’s almost an extension to computer games for some.
We need to ban drones in certain areas, said Ms Salzman.
Regulations need to distinguish clearly between the various types of operations of drones. Private drones in certain areas are one thing. Industrial drones operate to a specific brief within very strict areas which have their own rules of operation.
“Drones flying over public and populated areas are a very different thing and the same rules can’t apply to both events.”
What seems certain is that drones will become an ever more ‘usual’ part of our world.
“Once upon a time, there was resistance and concern about CCTV cameras. Now they are a given,” said Ms Salzman. “At any given moment we can go to a camera and check what is happening there.”
Percepto and Certus Port Automation recently announced a strategic partnership to integrate autonomous drones with automation solutions for ports and terminals.
A drone stationed in a port can be available 24/7 for operations and can carry out dozens of missions without any involvement of people, said Ms Salzman.
“Our drone can be pre-programmed to fly to certain locations to collect images, to survey the fence or determine if there are any unauthorised people in the area.
Once finished, it will fly back to its station, connect itself and be ready for its next mission.”
Many ports have taken up drone technology, thanks in part to the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), which is working with drone companies in order to improve coast guard monitoring and surveillance of maritime activity, said Ms Salzman.
Drones are being used in ports for surveillance and monitoring purposes and a few are even using them specifically for spotting migrants and refugees, she said.
The UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) and the RNLI have carried out exercises to test the use of drones for search and rescue operations.
Martek said it would be writing to all maritime non-government organisations, classification societies and flag administrations to raise the ISPS issue and get their individual responses on the matter.
“ISPS needs an urgent update to address the growing threat that drones pose to safety and security of commercial shipping.
It’s critical that awareness is urgently raised, and procedures updated to counter the growing threat before it’s too late,” said Martek CEO Paul Luen.