Ensuring Port and Harbor Security with Unmanned Surface Vehicles

By George Galorisi

The deployment of two U.S. Navy hospital ships, USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, to the ports of Los Angeles and New York City, respectively, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has made international news, and has reminded people that while navies are crafted primarily for war, they are also useful in so many other ways. Seeing the cheering crowds as these ships arrived in of Los Angeles and New York City was a vivid reminder of the impact these purpose-built ships can have.

This event has also highlighted the importance of ports and harbors to any nation. While these coastal assets are typically thought of primarily as nodes that are vital to support worldwide globalization, the response of USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort also emphasizes the unique ability to bring aid via sea, in much the same way as ships of many navies have always responded to natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes.

But as these ships sit in these ports with their priceless lifesaving equipment and close to one thousand highly skilled – and indispensible – medical personnel aboard each ship, it should also bring to mind the vulnerability of these ports and harbors. While a merchant ship with a crew of perhaps a dozen mariners might present a good target for terrorists or other disaffected persons, a hospital ship with almost one thousand medical personnel and an equal number of critically ill patients is a target that, if successfully attacked, would gain the attackers a huge victory.

Potential scenarios like this should remind us that authorities must ensure port security 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This task includes threat detection and security response, continuous inspection of port assets, as well as on-demand inspections after storms or other disasters, ongoing surveys to ensure navigable waterways, hull inspections, and a wide-range of other missions.

The magnitude of providing comprehensive security for an average size port – let alone some of the world’s mega-ports like Los Angeles, New York, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and others – can sometimes lure port authorities into letting their guard down and not taking all the steps they can to ensure the requisite level of security.  But in an increasingly dangerous world where not just terrorists, but others, may wish to make a statement or lash out at a particular nation, ports that can be attacked via land or sea present an all-too-inviting target.

Today’s State of the Art for Port Security

Current security measures in most ports involve monitoring the video provided by cameras throughout the port, as well as patrolling the ports’ expanse of water with a fleet of manned vessels. This methodology stresses the ability of port authorities to provide 24/7/365 security and typically leads to serious gaps in coverage.

Cameras seem to offer an effective solution, but what people forget is that someone – often several people – must monitor the video for the cameras to have any purpose, let alone effectiveness. With some ports maintaining scores of cameras – or more – this entails having a command center and enough watch-standers to monitor all of the cameras in real-time, 24 hours a day.

Similar issues accompany the use of manned craft to patrol a harbor of any size – let alone mega-ports. Manned vessel operations are increasingly expensive, are often limited by weather and water conditions, and physically stress port professionals. For most ports, multiple manned vessels are needed to guarantee sufficient revisit time.

Compounding the issue is the physical toll riding a small vessel – either a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) or other small craft. Unlike watchstanders on land who might be able to work shifts as long as eight or even twelve hours, pounding through an often-choppy harbor in a RHIB or small craft means that a watch rotation of somewhere between three and four hours is about all most people can endure. With such short watch rotations, the need to provide round-the-clock security can quickly multiply costs.

Given the manifest challenges of providing adequate security for ports with current state-of-the-art systems and capabilities, it is little wonder that port officials are searching for technology solutions that will enable them to provide better security, at lower costs. Some ports, like the Port of Los Angeles are proactively looking for a better solution.

The Port of Los Angeles: A Mega-Port with a Challenge

The Port of Los Angeles (POLA) is the busiest port in the United States. This mega-port comprises 3,200 acres (42 square miles) of water, 43 miles of waterfront, 26 passenger and cargo terminals and 86 ship-to-shore container cranes. POLA handled over 9.3 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo in 2017.

Current capabilities to secure the Port of Los Angeles’ 42 square miles of water involve monitoring the video provided by 500 cameras throughout the port, as well as patrolling the ports’ expanse of water with a fleet of manned vessels. This methodology stresses the ability of POLA authorities to provide the necessary 24/7/365 security.

Providing security for this mega-port is a massive undertaking, and one made more challenging by the understanding that it is the port’s very prominence as the most active harbor in the United States that makes it an inviting target. Port of Los Angeles officials must ensure security against a wide range of human attacks as well as natural disasters.

An Innovative Best-Practices Demonstration for the Port of Los Angeles

The Port of Los Angeles officials had a mandate from a number of stakeholders to explore the possibility of using unmanned surface vehicles to enhance the ability of POLA authorities to ensure the security of the port. To that end, the port invited Maritime Tactical Systems Inc. (MARTAC) to demonstrate the capabilities of their MANTAS USV. MANTAS is a high-performance USV built on a catamaran-style hull, and comes in a number of variants ranging in size from six-foot to 50-foot. A demo was conducted with a 12-foot MANTAS as it had already been proven in its viability for the wide-variety of POLA missions described above.

The 12-foot MANTAS (the T12) has a length of twelve feet and a width of three feet. It is fourteen inches high and draws only seven inches of water. The vessel weighs 260 pounds and has a carrying capacity of 140 pounds. Its twin-screw battery powered electric propulsion prime mover enables the T12 to cruise at a comfortable 20 knots in sea state four.

While the demonstration was performed with the T12, the family of MANTAS vessels range up to 50-foot in size and as the sizes increase, so do the speeds, on-station time, and sensor carrying capability.  All craft can be controlled via a remote operator or maneuvered autonomously in a preset mission scenario.  The MANTAS can be equipped with a wide variety of above-surface sensors and below-surface sensors. Real-time monitoring, to a port command center, is provided by a MANTAS communications package.

Leveraging Previous Successful Demonstrations

One of the reasons that the Port of Los Angeles requested the MANTAS system demonstration was the fact that the MANTAS had performed well in a port security demonstration conducted by the U.S. Army. In September, 2017, three MANTAS T-series vessels were part of the Mobile Ocean Terminal Concept Demonstration (MOT-CD) in Concord, CA. The primary objective of this demonstration was to assess MANTAS’ ability to patrol and protect the harbor and ammunition loading container ships.

For these missions, three MANTAS vessels, T6, T8 and T12, were used to perform different operations. The MANTAS T6 was utilized as an intercept vessel to quickly address potential threats. This T6 was equipped with a standard electro/optical camera focused on rapid interdiction and base threat identification. The second vessel was a MANTAS T8, with a medium performance envelope of 30 knots. Its role was as a forward-looking harbor vessel situational awareness asset mounted with a FLIR M232 thermal camera.

The final vessel was a MANTAS T12 tasked with prosecuting above and below surveillance operations to detect and identify intruder vessels or other potential threats to harbor assets. The MANTAS T12 sensor kits included a SeaFlir 230 for above surface ISR capabilities and a Teledyne M900 for subsurface diver/swimmer detection.

Utilizing these three MANTAS configurations of overlapping areas and integrated mission profiles provided a more complete coverage of the sensitive area.  In the same manner, the larger T24 and T38 USV craft could have further replaced the smaller units, or additionally augmented the exercise with their increased endurance and larger variety of sensors.

Focusing on the Port of Los Angeles Unique Requirements

During the visit to the Port of Los Angeles, MARTAC representatives provided a comprehensive briefing on MANTAS capabilities, took a three-hour boat tour to observe the entirety of POLA authorities’ span of operations, and provided a remote demonstration where port officials controlled and observed MANTAS operating off the eastern coast of Florida. The demonstration validated the going-in assumption that employing a thoroughly tested and proven USV is a solution POLA is keen to pursue.

After observing the MANTAS remote demonstration, it was determined that the capabilities of this USV meet the requirements for the wide variety of missions for the Port of Los Angeles. Additionally, and importantly, if a longer endurance or an increased mission payload sensor profile was desired by the port, the modularity of the MANTAS system allows for increasing the size of the craft from the battery powered electric motor 12-foot T12 to a marine diesel fueled 24-foot T24 or 38-foot T38.  This transition will eliminate the necessity for battery replacement/recharging on the T12 after each of the shorter missions.

This demonstration certified that commercial-off-the-shelf unmanned surface vehicles can ably conduct a comprehensive harbor security inspection of a mega-port such as the Port of Los Angeles. As a facility with a longstanding need to augment its manned vessel patrol activities with emergent technology in the form of unmanned surface vehicles, the Port of Los Angeles demonstration provided a best practices example of the art-of-the-possible for enhancing port security.

A Way Ahead for Port and Harbor Security

Mega-ports, as well as hundreds of other smaller ports and harbors, are critical to world trade.  A disaster like a fire, explosion, or a major oil spill could close one of these ports for an indefinite time. Sending ships like USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort to the ports of Los Angeles and New York City should remind us all of the obligation, as well as the challenge, of protecting these vital nodes that support globalization and the burgeoning world trade that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.

The enhanced security taxonomy described in this article has not been evaluated previously, and there is a reason.  The technology to provide reliable, adaptable and affordable USV support to augment manned capabilities and expand the reach of port police at facilities such as the Port of Los Angeles simply did not exist just a few years ago. But that has now changed. This technology is available today with commercial off-the-shelf unmanned surface vessels, and these can be employed to increase the effectiveness of port protection if we are to make better use of the technology we already have.

Given the way that commercial-off-the-shelf unmanned surface vehicles have performed in an increasing number of military and civilian exercises, experiments and demonstrations, one has to ask why they are not being leveraged more fully – and more quickly – for a variety of missions. Innovating with COTS systems we have at hand would appear to provide a near-term, affordable and effective solution to the challenge of providing comprehensive port and harbor security.

Editor’s Note: What Galorisi highlights is a case study of how maritime remotes can be used effectively to provide for proactive ISR.

Rather than simply focus on the platforms, the core point is the payload and the establishment of a grid of sensors which can work together to provide the decision maker with information, packaged in such a way as to target a threat and provide for a reliable path to resolution.