Liquid bulk cargo sampling is essential in the maritime sector. The current process of sampling and examining the quality of the ship’s load is time consuming. What if drones could assist in the sampling process?

TNO research scientist Relja Djapic looks back on this interesting use-case, that could drastically change the liquid cargo sampling process in the future. “Together with a student group from Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, Rotterdam Mainport Institute we decided to focus on this maritime and logistics use-case. Before a tanker comes to a port, a check is needed to verify its content. Is it the same as ordered and paid for? Didn’t it get contaminated during transport? At present a certified person – a surveyor is transported to the ship, climbs on board, collects a sample and brings it back to the lab. We were curious if a drone could be sent offshore, beyond visual line of sight in order to complete the sampling process. We were keen to prove that 5G could be used as enabling technology in this use-case.”

The team had a discussion with numerous stakeholders to collect precious insights in the selected use-case e.g. the port of Rotterdam, Shell, liquid storage companies as well as drone SMEs. One of the major issues to conduct field trials with drones is that, at present, the Dutch legislation for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone operations are not yet in place. This means that the drone pilot needs to have visual contact with the drone at all times. Relja: “As alternative to performing BVLOS trials with drones we came up with the idea to initially verify the concept through trials with a remote controlled model car. The car is equipped with a camera and a 5G modem. A video of the car’s surroundings is transmitted through the 5G network to the pilot on a remote location. Based on the received video the pilot steers the car and even performs a slalom between traffic cones. The first round of field trials were conducted in the Unmanned Valley where an experimental 5G network is deployed. During the trial the model car was able to seamlessly switch from one serving 5G base station to another one that was providing better quality of service in a given situation. 5G network throughput was sufficient to support video transfer from the car to the pilot and the measured latency was small enough to enable remote precise remote control through the 5G network. This is an important proof that the concept of 5G based BVLOS command and control of unmanned vehicles is feasible. The trials are registered in a video, so you can see how the testing with the model car took place.”

Conceptual differences

“Currently, my colleague Anthony Pages is busy with implementation of the verified concept into a drone. Technically there is no big difference between controlling a model car or a drone – for the former the speed and direction of the wheels need to be controlled and for the latter performance of the propellers are the ones to be managed. A challenge to further be evaluated for the drone use-case is to verify whether 5G connectivity will provide the same quality of service for airborn users as it is providing for the terrestrial ones. Initially cellular networks were mainly developed to serve users on the ground so it is needed to investigate, through trials, how 5G accommodates users in the air. We intend to evaluate this aspect in our future tests with 5G based drones in the Unmanned Valley” – is Relja’s vision on the upcoming experimentations.

A look ahead

“Based on the technical features of 5G and conducted trials Relja believes that 5G is a promising enabling technology to support beyond visual line of sight operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). This could be of great help in logistics, transport and maritime use-cases. In order to make this possible there are two conditions to be met. Mobile network operators should provide 5G network coverage everywhere in the Netherlands and as far offshore as possible. Another aspect is that regulatory aspects for beyond visual line of sight drone flights should be set in place in the Netherlands. EU rules establishing a dedicated airspace for drones known as the U-space become applicable as of January 2023. The next steps will involve Member States designating their U-space areas on the national level. Proving that 5G is capable of assuring safe and reliable BVLOS operation of drones could facilitate faster introduction of Dutch U-spaces. This is what we are going to focus on in the coming period”- concludes Relja.

Figure: using 5G for beyond visual line of sight operation of UAVs

Figure: 5G equipped model car performs a cone slalom controlled from a remote BVLOS location based on the video provided by the car.