Eyes in the sky
Endless stretches of dunes, patchworks of industrial parks, vast extended mazes of container terminals. Keeping track of what’s going on in Dutch coastal regions is sometimes an arduous task. Even though we have quite a few customs officials walking around and driving around, and even though large areas are covered by networks of surveillance cameras, it’s not enough. That’s why we have recently started using unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with day and night vision apparatus. For the time being, they are operating in the port of Rotterdam, with later rollout planned for all maritime customs regions and in the future perhaps the entire country. Let’s have a closer look at the Customs Drone Team.
“Customs is confronted with lots of different ways of smuggling”, Darko*, manager for the Customs Drone Team, tells us. “Such as with so-called intruders: criminals who sneak into the premises of storage companies to retrieve hidden shipments of drugs from incoming containers. This method obviously presents security hazards for bystanders and on-duty customs officers. And it causes logistical delays, with all the ensuing consequences for trade and the economy. After all, it’s very time consuming for our colleagues on site to localise suspected persons. When you’re on the ground you have limited surveillance capability. That’s why I thought: how can we get these kinds of locations better in our sights? The answer was obvious – from the air. Once I had that thought, I immediately arrived at drones.”
Launch into Dutch airspace
About four years ago, Darko submitted his idea to the Customs Innovation Coordination Group, where he was already serving as member responsible for Robotics. “Just by chance a colleague from the region of Groningen came up with the same idea at about the same time. In the north Netherlands, too, they felt the need to strengthen our physical surveillance. It reinforced my feeling that drones would be a welcome addition to our arsenal of monitoring instruments.”
The Customs Management Team had the exact same response. Long story short: Darko was given a chance to elaborate his plans, and ultimately succeeded in translating them from the drawing table to the real world. “We needed a multidisciplinary approach to get this off the ground because there are so many steps between the design phase and implementation. For instance, you have to select pilots and train them, go through the entire procurement procedure, and compose your own operations manual. We also needed lots of coordination with the government’s Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT in Dutch), because as aircraft operator you will be entering Dutch airspace and hence you have to satisfy all kinds of regulations. You even have to set up an aviation organisation. We were really lucky to have lots of help from people both inside and outside the organisation.” And the results exceed all expectations: a Customs Drone Team, fitted out with the latest modern equipment, with Darko himself as one of the team leaders.
Crystal clear images
Our experience with flying cameras has so far been really positive, Darko says enthusiastically. “We can make observations at night as well as during the day, and – just as we had hoped – we can see way more than we did before. Thanks to the excellent zoom function, we can also make crystal clear images from a good distance away. What’s also important: you are a good distance away, too, and so practically invisible to any observer. That’s not only handy when you’re carrying out surveillance, but also useful when you’re doing reconnaissance.”
The images made by the drones follow a highly detailed protocol. “Anything that ‘conforms’ is erased, images containing suspicious items or someone caught ‘red-handed’ are stored as potential evidence”, Darko explains. “If by chance any faces or silhouettes of bystanders get recorded, these will be blurred or made unrecognisable in a different way. The rights and privacy of citizens are therefore well safeguarded.”
The drone has proved its usefulness for monitoring, tracking and detection in a short period of time. More customs officers working in the Rotterdam port area are undergoing pilot training, while in every other maritime region too – Groningen, Amsterdam and Breda – colleagues are getting their pilot’s licence. “So in those places, too, we are busy setting up drone teams”, Darko says. “And we’re thinking about eventually rolling out these units across the entire country. Having a bird’s eye view could, after all, give our customs work a lot of added value.”
* In order to protect the privacy of Customs employees in critical processes, ‘Customs NL inSight’ does not use last names.
Strict selection, solid training
Customs recruits candidates for drone pilot training from those in armed physical supervision. They undergo a careful selection process. During the extended assessment we are looking for those with excellent hand-eye coordination, who can follow strict procedures to the letter, and who can carry the responsibility for handling expensive sensitive equipment.
Aspiring flyers receive a medical examination and follow an intensive training programme, consisting of both theoretical and practical components. After completing that, they go through an internal training programme and a radiotelephony course, so they know how to communicate properly with air traffic controllers. And because they will always have to communicate in English, there is also a language test. Once they have gained their pilot’s licence, they have to fly a minimum number of hours each year to maintain it. And every six months they have to sit an exam, which tests their theoretical, procedural and practical knowledge.