Watching Rotterdam (and More) 

What are drones doing Inside Europe’s biggest ports? 

Doing what they do best, of course, which is to fly.  

After years of test flights, authorities at the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands have given the go-signal to integrate UAVs in its operations, making it the first in Europe “to organize its own airspace with regulations to ensure smooth and safe drone traffic.”  

To do so, the Port of Rotterdam chose software maker Airwayz to provide its Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system for the air traffic control services of the port area. The UTM system will allow drones and other aerial vehicles to operate in the harbor’s airspace while conducting security surveillance, ship inspections and deliveries.  

Since 2020, several test drone deliveries to and from shipping vessels in Rotterdam have been successful, proving that drones can be used to improve transport efficiency. The port has also been working with Dutch drone manufacturer Avy since last year to test if their drones can be used to effectively inspect ships. Sea-going and inland shipping inspections are currently being tested, including ship-to-ship transfer, zoning for hazardous substances, shore-to-ship transfer, air pollution, and repairs on board vessels.  

Other ports in Europe are also welcoming drones. The neighboring city of Antwerp, another important European port, has started deploying drones to detect floating debris for faster removal. “A clean and safe port is an absolute priority,” said Piet Opstaele, the Port of Antwerp’s Innovation Enablement Manager. “The use of drones for floating debris detection is a fine example of how innovation and digitization can contribute to this.”  

Another drone adopter is Germany’s largest seaport, the Port of Hamburg, where drones are being used to inspect structures in its facilities, letting engineers access locations that are hard to reach or dangerous. Other ports, such as the those of Marseille and Fos, in France, are using drones to monitor air pollution from passenger and commercial ships. Vertical take-off and landing quadcopters equipped with camera payloads and emissions measurement sensors have been deployed to take measurements from the exhaust plumes of passing ships. Their aim is to verify whether ships comply with European rules that limit the sulphur content of marine fuels. 

Expect more UAVs to fly over more European ports this year. Clearer rules establishing a dedicated airspace for drones in Europe, known as the U-space, are being implemented. According to a statement from the European Commission, the U-space “creates and harmonizes the conditions needed for manned and unmanned aircraft to operate safely, to prevent collisions between drones and other aircraft, and to mitigate the risks of drone traffic on the ground.” 

But more importantly, the new U-Space directive will permit drone pilots to carry out more complex and longer-distance operations, even when out of sight due to better information exchange and navigation performance standards. Full implementation of the U-space is expected to be achieved by 2030. 

“Drones are a clear part of the future transport and logistics landscape,” said European Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean. “There is vast potential when it comes to new cargo and delivery services, as well as other innovative applications, including drone flights with passengers on board in the future.” 

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