Antwerp’s Autonomous Sounding Vessel

In a technical breakthrough with global implications, Europe’s second largest port, Antwerp, is trialling an unmanned, autonomous hydrographic survey vessel called Echodrone. A prototype developed to supplement Echo, the port’s other, conventional, hydrographic vessel, Echodrone is being tested throughout the port. 


Antwerp’s senior technical manager for nautical access, Wim Defevere, told NauticExpo e-magazine that Echodrone was developed in partnership with Belgium-based marine automation specialist dotOcean. “Echodrone uses a unique guiding and operating technology—a first—which is a cloud-based solution for autonomous sailing and decision-taking we developed with dotOcean.” dotOcean co-founder Koen Geirnaert explained:

Data from all sorts of devices throughout the port is made available over the internet and then selectively compiled and translated into useful information by algorithms in the cloud. Echodrone is designed to navigate fully independently using this verified data, unlike the previous generation of automatic vessels that had to rely on their own onboard sensors.

Regular measurements of water depths at berths and at all other points throughout the port are carried out to both ensure safe passage and mooring for ships and to plan for essential maintenance dredging. Being smaller than Echo and fully autonomous, Echodrone is more nimble and flexible: it can even operate in heavy shipping traffic where Echo would be unable to go. 

When trials are completed, Echodrone will be based in Antwerp’s Deurganck dock to measure water depths at the busiest of the tidal container quays. “Using Echodrone, 24/7 surveying operations will be possible in the busiest parts of the port,” Defevere concluded, “giving us a considerable increase in survey operation efficiency.”

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