In May, the Port of Long Beach began using two portable underwater robots with high-frequency sonar imaging capabilities as part of its new underwater surveillance system.
The robots can be used from shore to search for dangerous objects on the port’s piers, as well as the underwater surfaces of vessels, said Cosmo Perrone, director of security for Long Beach. They will be used to take underwater photos of the entire pier system to create a baseline record of existing conditions. With the help of the robots, security officials will be able “to understand everything that is going on in port” and “to differentiate what is normal activity from what is suspect,” he said.
The robots are part of a comprehensive underwater security system being installed in Long Beach. “If you look at it holistically, you must monitor underwater as well as above water,” said Perrone.
The program is the culmination of efforts that began in 2005, when Long Beach received a $3.8 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security for an underwater surveillance system with both fixed and mobile elements, according to Port of Long Beach spokesman Art Wong.
The mobile element, which consists of portable, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), was purchased from VideoRay LLC of Phoenixville, Pa. Port staff began training with the ROVs in April. Long Beach actually purchased four VideoRay robots to have backup units.
The fixed system will be in place by 2008, said Wong. That system will include several high-frequency sonar heads installed at various choke points in the port. A key aspect of the sonar system is its processing software that allows operators to determine whether moving objects are swimmers, divers or marine life.
While the public’s attention to port security has been focused on systems on land to keep cargo and vessels safe, private companies and the federal government have taken existing commercial products and technology to come up with ways to guard against underwater threats.
“Until now, we’ve always been on top of the water, from the surface up,” said Lt. Cmdr. Alan Tubbs of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Maritime Homeland Security Group for the Pacific Area, based in Alameda, Calif. “We can’t ignore from the surface down.”
Underwater surveillance used to be the domain of the military. Long Beach is demonstrating that it is something commercial ports can and should master.
It makes sense for Long Beach. It’s the second-busiest port in the United States. If you combine Long Beach with the neighboring Port of Los Angeles, the complex ranks as the world’s fifth’s busiest.
“We’re part of the biggest port complex in the country, so we obviously have to do more,” said Wong.
These portable robots can be used off the pier to inspect the sides of vessels or they can be towed behind a dive boat that the port began operating a year ago for protecting piers and vessels. The port has a three-person dive team. That means the robots can be used effectively by the new dive team and boat. “To us, it was a perfect fit,” said Perrone.
Long Beach is not moving ahead on its own. The port coordinates its underwater surveillance efforts with the Los Angles Port Police, the Los Angles Fire Department
|The ROV on the bow of a port survey and patrol boat. The unit weighs only eight pounds. [photo courtesy VideoRay LLC]
and the U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team (MSST) in San Pedro. The Port of Los Angeles dive group already has one VideoRay ROV, according to Wong. If Long Beach receives more funding, it plans to install fixed sonar to cover areas in the Port of Los Angeles as well, Wong said.
There are two basic goals of underwater surveillance: first, to be able to detect underwater swimmers or divers and to differentiate them from marine life; and second, to inspect hulls, piers and the ocean bottom to detect suspicious objects. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, created a demand for affordable, easy-to-use systems for underwater surveillance.
Underwater surveillance as an industry “was languishing, because there wasn’t a lot of commercial activity,” said Ric Walker, an ocean engineer and project manager for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center in Groton, Conn. “I would characterize it now as a rapidly evolving field.”
VideoRay did not set out to make security products. VideoRay manufactures several types of portable ROVs. The basic product weighs about 8 pounds, with a 500-foot-long tether and can be operated by anybody on a boat, or on shore, using a joystick. A monitor connected to a control box provides real-time video of what the ROV is seeing underwater. The company was founded in 1999, and the product was marketed as a way to do underwater inspections of piers, bridges, dams, pipelines, and commercial and recreational vessels.
“When 9/11 happened, the whole industry got turned on its head,” said Chris Gibson, VideoRay’s director of sales and marketing.
Its portability, ease of use and adaptability made VideoRay’s ROV a popular choice. “We have a very open platform with regard to the ROV,” said Gibson.
Right now, the company works with 15 other manufacturers who have created equipment that can be used with VideoRay’s ROV, including positioning systems, imaging sonar, metal-thickness gauges and radiation detectors. In October 2005, the Coast Guard signed a five-year blanket purchase agreement with VideoRay to help outfit the nation’s 11 marine safety and security teams.
The imaging sonar used by VideoRay is produced by BlueView Technologies of Seattle. The viewers are acoustic imaging devices that bounce sound waves off objects in the water or features on the ocean floor, turning them into real-time digital images.