A special Customs Drone Team has been set up in the Netherlands to fight drug smuggling and other crimes in the port of Rotterdam.
Dutch customs are increasingly using drones to monitor port areas and coastal regions. This not only concerns surveillance to combat drug smuggling but also assistance with arrests. Currently, drones are mainly used in the port area of Rotterdam, but in the future, they will be deployed nationwide.
Customs Drone Team
In the Netherlands, customs increasingly faces challenges such as drug smuggling and other crimes. However, it is difficult to monitor the vast container terminals, port areas and industrial estates in the coastal regions. The port of Rotterdam alone covers an area of 12,600 hectares or about 31,000 acres. Fixed cameras only cover a small part of these areas.
For this reason, Customs is increasingly using drones and a special Customs Drone Team has been set up. The idea for this arose about four years ago. The customs management team soon gave the project the green light. It was managed by Darko Brodic, a member of the Customs Innovation Coordination Group, Robotization section. Brodic is now co-leading the drone team.
“This required a multidisciplinary approach, because you have to take a lot of steps from design phase to implementation,” said Brodic. “For example, you have to select and train pilots, go through a tender process for the drones, draw up your own operational manual… And coordinate a lot with the Human Environment & Transport Inspectorate, because as an aviation operator you will be in the airspace and therefore have to comply with all kinds of rules. You even have to set up an aviation organization for that. Fortunately, many people from inside and outside the organization have helped with this.”
Drone with zoom and infrared camera
The Customs Drone Team uses the latest drones, including the DJI M300 RTK. It can be used both in daylight and in the dark, thanks to the Zenmuse H20T thermal camera. The drone is also equipped with an LED floodlight to illuminate an area on the ground at night.
“We can observe very well both at night and during the day, and we see – as expected – more than before,” Brodic added. “Thanks to the good zoom function, we are also able to take razor-sharp images from a great distance. Also important: you are far away, so as good as invisible. That's not only useful when you're on surveillance, but just as good when you're doing reconnaissance work, for example. After all, our team is also sometimes deployed in the event of an arrest by our colleagues from the Special Assistance Team.”
Drones deployed daily
The drone team now uses the drones almost every day. Aerial surveillance is especially effective in the fight against the people who unload the drugs from containers. In the future, it is also conceivable that drug transports at sea will be tracked by drone, or for the purpose of tracking suspicious goods over land. All recordings are processed in accordance with privacy legislation (GDPR).
“Everything that is ‘compliant' is removed again, recordings showing suspicious cases or a ‘red act' are kept for possible evidence,” explains Brodic. “If by chance faces or silhouettes of bystanders are captured, they are blurred or otherwise made unrecognizable. The rights and privacy of citizens are thus guaranteed.”
Expansion of the Customs Drone Team
Within Customs Rotterdam Port, even more employees are being trained as drone pilots, while colleagues in each of the other maritime regions – Groningen, Amsterdam and Breda – will also receive their license.
“We are also busy forming drone teams there,” says Darko. “And we are thinking about setting up these units all over the country. After all, the bird's eye view can be of added value for customs work everywhere.”
Customs is not the only party that works with drones for surveillance. The Port of Rotterdam Authority is also interested in the possibility of monitoring the port area from the air. At the end of 2021, a series of experiments were conducted with an Avy fixed-wing drone, which can cover greater distances at high speed. In the future, these will be stationed in drone boxes that can be controlled remotely.
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