The New Frontier of Port Security

By Mark Genung, maritime operations and uncrewed systems consultant.

Nautical ports have historically been the primary means for large volumes of cargo and people, including intercoastal shipping from local ports or from ports across the world. They can also support non-shipping activities including military operations, commercial fishing, recreational activities, and tourism. Since deep water ports are important economic engines for a region, they are also typically co-located with major cities to support the movement of materials and people from the port to interior destinations.

Ports were founded where the local natural features enabled their establishment. No two ports are physically the same and they often have different capabilities based on local conditions including how protected the harbor is from winds, maximum channel depth, currents and tidal range. These unique qualities will dictate the scope of activities – some can support commercial operations while others are limited to sports or recreational activities.

Against this backdrop, irregular activities have been conducted in nautical ports since their founding – illicit cargo shipping, human smuggling, material theft, tariff/tax avoidance, terrorism or acts of war. And recent technologies have increased these activities with uncrewed aircraft and surface vessels including low freeboard ships. To assist port operators in maintaining sufficient security the International Maritime Organization 2004 International Ship and Port Facility Security Code issued.

Port security measures include physical security barriers and personnel to prevent unauthorized intrusions from land. For unauthorized maritime activities, many harbors have optical systems that require a watch stander to observe shipping and correlate with a relatively expensive surface search radar that may not have adequate coverage throughout the port environment.  These man-power intensive systems suffer all the costs and potential foibles associated with manual operations.

The New Frontier of Port Security

Manually monitoring cameras requires dedicated personnel watching 24/7 while machine vision optical systems are challenged at night especially in poorly lit areas. Even infrared optics are adversely impacted when obscured by fog, rain or smoke. LIDAR has a relatively high cost and short ranges on the order of several hundred meters. Acoustic systems can be defeated by low audible signatures while legacy radar has been an expensive but effective option, usually reserved for larger ports or military situations.

Unlike some infrastructure sites, like power plants or large stadiums, most US ports have no meaningful aviation control administrative measures like Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) or counter UAS technologies to include detection of unauthorized aircraft intrusions. Some ports are co-located with airports and their associated controlled air space but those detection systems are optimized for the safety of flight control of legitimate, cooperative aircraft operating in the airport environment, not unidentified, uncooperative craft.

There have been a number of recent real-world incidents that highlight the risks associated with uncrewed surface vessels and aircraft. In April 2024, video of an unknown UAS flying over the USS RONALD REAGAN (CVN 76) pier side at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan was uploaded to X (Twitter). While this was likely a benign event, it is unclear if the Japanese Self Defense Force or the US Navy were aware of the drone incursion at the time. A similar UAS could be flown into a harbor’s secure area to assess security weak points, understand ground personnel patrol patterns, and the location of ships and cargo, or worse.

Despite not having traditional naval forces, we are now seeing Ukrainian and Houthi uncrewed air and surface vessels demonstrating deep strike capabilities against ships in ports and at sea. These are enabled with readily available commercial GPS, inertial guidance and autopilot systems that can be procured for less than a thousand dollars and equipped on new or legacy aircraft or boats.

UAS Detection Capabilities
As the Yokosuka Naval Base drone incident highlights, the JSDF and US Navy may only have been aware of the potential threat because the drone flight crew posted a video after the fact. Without an effective sensor, a nefarious player could enter a port area undetected.

These incidents highlight the need for port security technologies that are multi-domain (ground, maritime and air tracks) capable, as well as reliable, day/night capable, affordable, effective and distributable.

Available UAS detection capabilities include human observers, short range Remote ID for non-nefarious operators, relatively high cost (>$100K) legacy radars, acoustic sensors, RF command and control detectors, and AI-based optical systems. But each has limitations related to cost, effectiveness, and demonstrated reliability. Most importantly, none are multi-use systems able to detect unauthorized ground or maritime intruders including unmanned surface vessels.

A distributed set of lower cost sensors, installed to eliminate blind spots and provide coverage for sensitive areas, could detect unauthorized intrusions and provide insights via heat maps and other tools when and how often these events occur.

Distributable sensors are those that can be effectively placed to detect intruders that may otherwise hide in the radar or equivalent shadow if only a single radar source were used. They must also be fused with other information, like drone Remote ID, general aviation ADS-B or ship Automatic Identification System, to provide a port security team comprehensive situational awareness to detect, measure, or respond to unauthorized incursions. The use of multiple integrated sources able to detect non-cooperative vessel or aircraft could automatically alert first responders as possible nefarious activity.

Such data in turn provides insights as to the need for investments in counter-UAS or other tactics, techniques or procedures to prevent port intrusions. For example, analysis of intruder events could show that most surface intrusions occur with vessels entering a port with their Automatic Identification System disabled, navigation lights off, during a moonless night. Counter maritime assets including boat patrols and additional pier security personnel could then be scheduled to respond to this threat window.

A low cost, size, weight and power (SWAP) distributable sensor that can be used in multi-domain detection modes provides an important set of capabilities for port security managers. Phased array radars have been used in the US Navy for air defense for decades, and the author has employed them for everything from submarine periscope detection to ballistic missile tracking.

Which is why MatrixSpace has developed its low SWaP, smart phone-sized radar that is a relatively low-cost solution for just such a situation. Its modular, phased array, 3D (direction, distance and altitude) radar provides an all-weather, 24/7/365 unblinking sensor that can be implemented in any port or harbor regardless of geography and physical layout. It truly digitizes the outdoors to meet the challenges of today’s world.

Learn more about MatrixSpace solutions at Drone Detection and Critical Infrastructure.

Mark Genung is a former US Navy Captain who served on eight warships and commanded two of them. After retiring from naval service in 2013, he has been in the commercial UAS industry in a variety of operational roles including infrastructure inspection, drone delivery and UAS detect and avoid technology research and development. He is a qualified and proficient remote and private pilot. Currently, Mark is the Operations Manager for the FAA authorized Nevada UAS Test Site operated by the University of Nevada, Reno.

Learn more about MatrixSpace Radar and request product information

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