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Port of Antwerp tests 3D sonar sensors for autonomous shipping

Port of Antwerp tests 3D sonar sensors for autonomous shipping
3D Sonar Sensor - Photo UAntwerp

The University of Antwerp (UAntwerp) and the Port of Antwerp have begun testing 3D sonar sensors to enable automated navigation, which is seen as the future of inland shipping.

Inspired by the way bats see the world, Prof Jan Steckel at CoSys-Lab, a research group in UAntwerp’s Faculty of Applied Engineering, is developing advanced sensor systems that can withstand harsh conditions.

He stated: “’In order to achieve fully autonomous navigation, constant monitoring of the ship’s surroundings is absolutely crucial. Cameras can be used, of course, but when visibility is poor – due to dust, water sprays, mud, smoke or fog – they don’t work properly.”

Sonar sensors remain fully functional under severe weather conditions, providing a reliable picture of the ship’s surroundings at a low cost.

Steckel added: “’We drew our inspiration from the way bats use echolocation. They emit sound waves, and when those waves hit objects, the bats hear the echoes of these collisions, allowing them to avoid obstacles flawlessly.”

For the project with the Port of Antwerp, the researchers developed a 3D sonar sensor with 32 sophisticated waterproof microphones. The project is called eRTIS, which stands for ’embedded Real Time Imaging Sonar’.

In the last weeks of 2020, the technology was successfully tested on the Tuimelaar, one of the Port of Antwerp’s test vessels.

Stackel noted: “’The information is transmitted in real time, because if there are any delays, the ship could crash into something. The ‘Imaging Sonar’ part refers to reflected sound waves hitting the sensors to create a picture of the surroundings.”

In 2021, there will be a follow-up project: as part of the Smart Docking Innovation Challenge, the Port of Antwerp has given the green light to Prof. Jan Steckel’s 3D Sonar and Lidar for Vessel Monitoring project

Port alderman Annick de Ridder said: “’In 2019, over 42% of all goods entered or left the port of Antwerp via inland waterways. In other words, inland shipping is crucial if we want to ensure the accessibility of our city and our port.

“By focusing on technology such as unmanned navigation, we want to further increase both the market share and the competitiveness of inland shipping.”

Svetlana Samsonova, liaison officer between UAntwerp and Port of Antwerp, said: “’Unfortunately, inland shipping is not exactly a sexy sector. Attracting young talent to this sector is not an easy feat. That’s why we focus so strongly on innovation.

“Unmanned vessels can lead to substantial cost savings, as well as provide an answer to our increasing traffic congestion problems and the rising costs of road transport. Smart vessels definitely have a part to play in the multimodal transport approach that the Port of Antwerp wants to help develop further.”