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Unmanned vehicles and port security: imagine that


“We are entering an era in which unmanned vehicles of all kinds will take on greater importance in space, on land, in the air and at sea” -- President George W. Bush’s address to the Citadel, Dec. 2001.

President Bush’s speech was made 13 years ago and while we have made some progress, adopting the use of unmanned vehicles (UV) in the civilian sector has lagged expectations. Should unmanned vehicles play a role in port safety and security? Absolutely. In the mid 1970s there were seemingly outlandish claims that “every household would eventually have a personal computer.” This author believes that every major port will have at least one unmanned vehicle as a safety and security asset within the next 10-15 years.

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 object prior to rendering them safe. This article explores the value of unmanned vehicles (surface and underwater) in port security applications.

Port safety and security from an underwater perspective

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.
  • Waterside security resources in most ports are scarce and the cost of hiring and maintaining additional personnel to support the waterside security mission may be unsustainable. UUVs can serve as an economic force multiplier.
  • It is incumbent upon the port to maintain advertised channel and at-dock depths. The combination of advances in sonar technology, advanced man/machine interface, reduced costs of UUVs and increased UUV capabilities can give port owner/operators the ability to identify shoaling hazards, bulkhead/piling maintenance issues and improvised explosive devices.
  • UUVs can be programmed to perform surveys locating hazards in entrance channels and to determine at-dock depths not days or weeks after a storm event or hurricane but within minutes of the storm’s end. 
  • 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.
  • UUVs are equally effectively at night as during the day.
  • The use of UUVs keeps port personnel (marine police, EOD divers) and support platforms away from the threat by gathering information in a stealthy mode prior to personnel engagement.
  • 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.
  • Preprogrammed routes allow for minimal human intervention with UUVs during selected operations.
  • UUV sensors have the capability to detect and classify an underwater threat giving port police enough lead time to respond appropriately.

Environmental data

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.

Military’s role in UUV hardware and concept of operations (CONOPS) development

It is the military who has taken the lead providing resources over the past two decades in the development of unmanned, air, underwater and surface vehicles. Today there are hundreds of UUVs in the U.S. military inventory. These Navy UUVs are capable of everything from bottom mapping, hazard identification and identifying and classifying unexploded ordinance. Defense organizations worldwide have funded multiple unmanned vehicle and sensor test and evaluations over the past decade. With the data and information gathered from these events, the militaries have adopted unmanned vehicles (surface and subsurface) as vital tools in their port security toolboxes. There exists a US Navy UUV Master Plan which could be translated into civilian port security applications. Following is a table contrasting selected Navy missions and civilian port security-focused missions. The table focuses on six public port Unmanned Vehicle mission areas including: Surveillance, Mine-countermeasures, Underwater Port Security, Underwater Port Infrastructure Inspection and Maintenance, Port Resumption and Resilience and Navigation Safety.

Selected examples of unmanned vehicles for port security missions

There is a growing class of UUVs that can perform pre-programmed tasks as well as be controlled from a topside unit to zoom in, if you will, on specific targets and provide real time feedback.

An example of one of these hybrid vehicles is under development by Boston Engineering Corporation. BIOSwimmer is an extremely maneuverable, light weight vehicle that can be deployed by two people. It uses the movement of a fish like tail with thruster, via bio mimicry to wend its way along a ship’s hull and into the propeller aperture in search of contraband, explosives or damage.

Boston Engineering’s Advanced Systems Group (ASG) develops robotics, unmanned systems, and special tactical equipment. Their team works with clients to develop, test and commercialize unmanned vehicles for land and sea. Missions include surveillance, mine countermeasures, detection and neutralization of underwater threats, inspection and maintenance and environmental monitoring.

Unmanned port security vessel

The University of Hawaii students, researchers and outside contractors have developed an unmanned port security vessel.

This vessel is an unmanned surface vessel and it is worthy of mention in this article as it was designed specifically for port security missions. The missions identified for this vessel include incident response and recovery, harbor surveillance and port infrastructure inspection.

This vehicle was designed to be rapidly deployable and can simultaneously produce a high resolution seafloor map of the port environment, take photos of critical infrastructure above and below the waterline. It can also detect chemical leaks or spills, and relay real-time video.  Funding for the program has come from multiple sources including Department of Homeland Security, University of Hawaii and the National Science Foundation.


Unmanned Vehicles provide new opportunities for efficiently executing port security missions. The technology is developing rapidly. Ports and harbors could benefit greatly by seizing this new technology to improve upon their own port safety and security readiness without additional human resource requirements.


Marianne Molchan is president of Molchan Marine Sciences and a retired commander and Navy diver. Molchan Marine Sciences LLC is based in Florida and specializes in waterside and underwater port security solutions, navigation safety and marine technology development. The company is consulting with several Florida ports concerning port security requirements during their expansion projects. She can be reached at [email protected].


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