Drones go on duty at the giant Singapore seaport

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They are already testing a new system in which autonomous flying drones would carry luggage between the coast and the thousands of ships moored in the port at any one time.

A Singapore-based consortium is testing how drones can be used to deliver packages from shore to ships in a nine-month pilot programme. It will use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAs) to deliver maritime transport supplies to ships at anchor in one of the world’s busiest seaports, where a new maritime vehicle departs or arrives every 2-3 minutes. The participating companies (ST Engineering, Sumitomo, Skyports) are working with key industry players to develop the network.

The drones will fly with packages weighing up to 7 kilograms in DropNet’s autonomous UA system, which is expected to be customisable for urban environments and military applications, supporting technologies such as facial recognition and visual imaging, and of course providing real-time data analysis. In addition, ST Engineering says it is also working with local regulators and industry partners to test standalone applications for port-based deliveries.

These originally included the initial development of DropNet-powered drones and shore-to-ship parcel delivery, which was also funded by the Singapore Civil Aviation Authority with the assistance of Wilhelmsen Ships Service – the latter reportedly an important factor in improving the service’s commercialisation and operational efficiency. Indeed, the use of UA systems can significantly reduce response times and increase throughput compared to traditional ship-based transport.

They can also deliver packages and inspect ships

A not insignificant aspect is that the autonomous system has succeeded in reducing the relevant carbon emissions, which will contribute to a more sustainable operation of the maritime industry. Singapore has also earmarked S$60 million back in 2019 to support local startups and encourage technology development, specifically to improve the operational efficiency and sustainability of the maritime industry.

The key objective of the government’s investment was to create new business models and technical solutions that can improve operations, safety and sustainability in various areas of the sector, including shipping, port logistics, port operations or maritime services. According to a statement from ST Engineering, UA systems have already evolved rapidly enough in recent years to provide a safe and robust alternative to replace traditionally labour and time-intensive tasks.

The current pilot programme is the result of nearly two years of analysis and research and development, including the extension of the system’s functionality. Singapore is seen as an ideal location for the consortium to demonstrate to its customers the potential of autonomous unmanned systems in maritime logistics; a drone port has been operational in the southern part of the port since April last year, providing a suitable space for testing and shore-to-ship transport, as well as for developments in drone technologies such as remote monitoring of ships.

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