Rijkswaterstaat wants to place boxes with automatically flying drones at several places along the waterways in the Netherlands. These drones can be activated at the push of a button from the Nijmegen Traffic Post if something happens on the water. They send images of the incident to the air traffic controllers. That could be vital, said a spokesperson.
The service has been practicing in an area above the Waal for two years with drones that ‘know’ where they need to go. When the controller presses a button, the box opens and the drone starts flying.
“It’s getting better and better and that’s why we now want to expand the test area. We get the most from real experiences with the drones: do they fly in the right direction, crash into a high building on the way, fall down due to a gust of wind, do they suffer about birds? All questions we want answers to. And if things continue to go well, such automatic drones can become a permanent part of our work,” says the spokesperson.
According to Rijkswaterstaat, an automatic drone could, for example, be equipped with a life jacket. “That’s vital if someone gets into trouble on the water.” The drone can also quickly provide images of water pollution so that emergency services can take measures, such as closing a port. That limits the consequential damage.
A drone with a sensor can determine whether hazardous substances have been released into the water after a fire or explosion. In addition, recreational users on the water can be addressed via speakers on the drone.
‘We don’t use images to enforce’
Just like other emergency services, Rijkswaterstaat already uses regular drones. But automatically piloted aircraft are not yet in use. Strict rules apply to this, including to protect the privacy of people on and by the water.
“But we don’t use images to enforce, we only care about technical information about an incident,” said the spokesperson. She points out that a lot of images are taken over land by fixed cameras, which are important in the event of an accident. However, this does not yet exist above the water.
Rijkswaterstaat simulates a fire on a ship on the Waal near Nijmegen on Monday to show what the automatic drone can do. The service also wanted to show this exercise to Minister Mark Harbers (Infrastructure and Water Management), because his ministry has to decide on the future deployment of the aircraft. But the minister has canceled due to a corona infection.