Dutch Customs is always looking for new ways of conducting its supervision and reducing the inspection burden for trade and industry. For this purpose the administration experiments with groundbreaking technologies, working methods and partnerships. For example, drones will be tested in the Rotterdam port area this summer, as a possible extra means for customs supervision. Hereby Customs makes good use of experiences in particular of the Dutch Coastguard*.
Like many supervisors all over the world, the Dutch Coastguard knows the potential of unmanned aircraft. The organisation started a pilot project some time ago, where the added value of drone technology is examined in the maritime domain. Because the Coastguard performs work at sea on behalf of several inspection services, all kinds of applications are tested. For example, the Coastguard tests for Customs whether it is possible to select sailing objects from the air for inspection by means of cameras, whether the environment of these objects can be monitored well and whether any risks can be recognised more quickly in this way. However, remotely controlled aircraft can also be equipped with other equipment, as long as it is small and light, for example all kinds of measuring instruments. It will, for example, be possible to check the air around ships to see whether the emission of certain substances remains below the legally permitted standards. It is a device that could considerably facilitate the tasks of the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate.
Incidentally, the scope of the testing process of the Coastguard goes beyond the national territorial waters. For example, it is also investigating options with the Royal Netherlands Navy to use drones in the future against piracy on commercial navigation routes along the Somali coastline.
The Coastguard has been a network organisation since a few years, of which Customs with its staff and equipment is also part. This means that Customs can simply free-ride with the above-mentioned experiments on the North Sea. This is very handy, because the plans of the organisation to use drones as a complementary means of inspection, for example in the fight against narcotics gangs in the port of Rotterdam, are already well under way. Indeed, Customs will start a test itself in this area in July 2018 on the basis of a few scenarios in which several types of drug couriers play a main role. Let us start with intruders. Transshipment companies sometimes have to deal with these unwelcome guests, who slyly remove hidden packages of narcotics from containers. As soon as such unsavoury characters are seen, Customs officers turn out to cordon off the field in question and trace the unauthorised persons. However, the latter is no sinecure, because the average terminal is one large maze of very highly stacked containers. It is also a risky job, as criminals are involved who may be armed and dangerous. Thus, visual assistance can be very welcome, from an ordinary camera during the day and a thermal imagining camera for when it is dark. It helps investigating officers to be better prepared when they go into the stacks. It is safer for them, but also for any bystanders and the suspects.
Drugs networks use the most diverse smuggling methods. Packages of narcotics are transferred from incoming or mooring seagoing vessels into speedboats or RHIBs, and then unloaded. This is why Customs will also examine whether drones can make a contribution to monitoring locations around boats with an increased risk. All this should be regarded as an addition to the current supervision with video networks of permanent security cameras. The roads, quays and industrial estates in the port of Rotterdam have many hundreds of these devices**. Although they can zoom in adequately and often give very sharp images, they cannot cover every spot in this vast area, because there will always be blind spots. Aircraft with reconnaissance equipment makes Customs’ visual field much broader and more flexible. Ideally speaking, their images are streamed to a central control room*** and to the coordinators of the surveillance team on duty. They can then watch it live on their tablet or phone.
The Coastguard currently supports Customs in many ways with its first tests with drones. First of all, it offers advice about practical types and brands, many of which the Coastguard colleagues have already tested. It is in particular important for Customs that a drone has powerful batteries, so that that its flying time is not too limited. Moreover, it must have sufficient mass to not stray from its course or even crash; for example, above both Maasvlakte areas the wind can sometimes blow very hard. It is obviously also very pleasant when a drone does not make too much noise.
The Coastguard also helped Customs to train a few pilots, who participated in a current educational pathway. It is the intention to train more pilots soon, as well as so-called ‘spotters’. The pilots are primarily responsible for the flights, while the spotters monitor the environment, for example they can give warnings about approaching cranes, trucks and fork-lift trucks on terminals. In the end Customs will have a dozen qualified specialists for the operation of sufficient drones to cover all services in the port of Rotterdam 24/7.
But there is more. Apart from the current pilot project with ‘ordinary’ models, Customs will also start to use mini-drones as a means of inspection. Unlike their large counterparts, these small drones will not operate in the open air, but merely in closed rooms, especially on board ships. For example, in locations which are cramped, and therefore not easy to access for members of the National Deep Rummage Team and tracking dogs. Or where there is danger for persons and animals, for example fuel tanks with toxic gasses. These less obvious spots are regarded as hotspots, where smugglers prefer to hide their forbidden goods.
Dutch Customs’ drones will enter civil airspace within the Rotterdam port area. Moreover, the intended work area is located at the approach routes of a number of helicopter platforms and of Rotterdam The Hague Airport. All types of laws and regulations will automatically become effective. It is obvious that Customs operates fully within this legal framework. An exemption from flying in civil airspace has already been granted and a manual is being prepared, in which all necessary safety procedures and measures are laid down.
* In addition, Customs works together in this field with the Fire Brigade, the national police and the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management.
** The images of a large number of these CCTV security systems are available for Customs. The locations of the cameras are also decided by Customs.
*** There is an investigation into whether images from camera surveillance and drones could be read out in one location in the future.