Durban - Transnet is using drones to improve operations at the Durban harbour, including delivering packages to ships and monitoring the notorious congestion on Bayhead Road.

In the future, they may even be used to pilot ships into port, reducing the need to send a pilot to the vessel.

Details of a three-month trial drone programme emerged at the African Ports Evolution conference at Durban’s ICC on Tuesday.

Information and communication manager at the Port of Durban, Ristha Joga, said: “It provides us a real-time view of the operations, terminals, the artery roads leading into the port environment. We used it to look at the traffic congestion at the Bayhead Road area.

“We also used it to conduct a package drop-off to a vessel and that solution is being adapted with virtual reality technology as well as audio capability.”

Dropping a pilot on a vessel from a helicopter could be hazardous, said Joga. A drone, on the other hand, could provide a good view of the passage ahead and be used to guide the ship’s own pilot.

“A port like Durban will have two aerial drones and three aquatic drones. Aquatic drones will be able to give us water quality at a point in time.”

They also performed hull inspections.

She stressed that aquatic drones would not replace personnel, but allowed work to be done that exceeded human endurance and other limitations.

“There is no replacement of anyone’s job,” she said.

“We have divers, and there are days where they work between 8am and noon - or their maximum operating time… because of (limits to the) pressure they can endure beneath water.”

Aquatic drones can operate for 8 to 12 hours and can enter small crevices divers would not be able to get into and areas which are unsafe for people. They also generated a better output of data, she said.

Drones could actually create more jobs because the port did not have enough drone pilots.

Other technologies being tested for use in the port included satellite tracking and mobile applications.

Daily News