Port of Antwerp tests sonar for autonomous shipping

The Port of Antwerp and the University of Antwerp (UAntwerp) have begun testing 3D sonar sensors to enable automated navigation.

‘In 2019, over 42% of all goods entered or left the port of Antwerp via inland waterways’, explained port alderman Annick De Ridder. ‘In other words, inland shipping is crucial if we want to ensure the accessibility of our city and our port. By focusing on technology such as unmanned navigation, we want to further increase both the market share and the competitiveness of inland shipping.’


Prof Jan Steckel at CoSys-Lab, a research group in UAntwerp’s Faculty of Applied Engineering, is developing advanced sensor systems that can withstand harsh conditions.


Steckel commented: “’In order to achieve fully autonomous navigation, constant monitoring of the ship’s surroundings is absolutely crucial. Cameras can be used, of course, but when visibility is poor – due to dust, water sprays, mud, smoke or fog – they don’t work properly.”


Sonar sensors, however, remain fully functional under such circumstances. They can provide a reliable picture of the ship’s surroundings at a low cost. Steckel added: “We drew our inspiration from the way bats use echolocation. They emit sound waves, and when those waves hit objects, the bats hear the echoes of these collisions, allowing them to avoid obstacles flawlessly.”


For the project with the Port of Antwerp, the researchers developed a 3D sonar sensor with 32 sophisticated waterproof microphones. The project is called eRTIS, which stands for ’embedded Real Time Imaging Sonar’. Steckel: ‘The information is transmitted in real time, because if there are any delays, the ship could crash into something. The ‘Imaging Sonar’ part refers to reflected sound waves hitting the sensors to create a picture of the surroundings.’


In the last weeks of 2020, the technology was successfully tested on the Tuimelaar, one of the Port of Antwerp’s test vessels. In 2021, there will be a follow-up project: as part of the Smart Docking Innovation Challenge, the Port of Antwerp has given the green light to Prof. Jan Steckel’s 3D Sonar and Lidar for Vessel Monitoring project.

Latest News