Port of Antwerp – Automated drones to prevent oil pollution

As the 5th largest bunkering port in the world, about 100 oil spills occur in the Port of Antwerp every year. Most are small but there are larger spills having impact on the biotic environment and port operations. In addition, the clean-up cost is 1+ million euros (the polluter is not known in 60% of cases).

In order to detect oil spills more quickly, automated drones are used to systematically fly over the docks (12 times per day, 18 times from 2023 with night flights). Visual and thermal cameras and a computer vision model (developed by University of Antwerp) are used to detect virtually all oil spills. A research project has started to define the use of even more advanced (hyperspectral) cameras. The first results are promising as more incidents are detected when they are happening and faster intervention of the cleaning up company can be organized.

As most of types of oil are sinking to 2-3 meters below the water surface after 1-2 days, a fast detection is crucial to clean it up. This is important to prevent pollution of the water and its ecosystems, adjacent nature areas and contamination of ships and maritime infrastructure (e.g. locks). Besides actions to reduce the number of incidents (e.g. more secure valves), this project contributes significantly to a more clean and sustainable port. The expectation is that the cleanup costs will be reduced by 30% and the identification of polluters will increase to 80%+.

The project takes place in collaboration with knowledge institutes (University of Antwerp, VITO),while best practices are shared in the ChainPORT network, and there is a cooperation in preparation with Rijkswaterstaat in The Netherlands. Furthermore, a project involving several startups (DotOcean, Dronematrix) and maritime operators (Brabo) has started to integrate this solution with an autonomous sailing cleaning vessel.

In parallel, the Port of Antwerp is trialing next generation “fixed-wings drones” to assess further potential applications in enhancing safety and security.