How do sonar sensors work

3D sonar sensors enable unmanned shipping


Automated navigation is the future of inland shipping. What may sound futuristic today is being driven by innovative research at the University of Antwerp and the Port of Antwerp. 3D sonar sensors, inspired by the echolocation of bats, play an important role in this.

"Unfortunately, inland shipping is not a particularly attractive industry," explains Svetlana Samsonova. As Liaison Officer, she coordinates a number of joint research projects between the University of Antwerp and the Port of Antwerp. “It is not easy to attract young talent. That is why we are very committed to innovation. Technology should strengthen the competitiveness of inland shipping. "

One of these joint projects deals with autonomous shipping. An unmanned ship brings significant cost reductions and at the same time offers a solution to the increasing mobility problems and rising prices in road transport. Samsonova: "Intelligent ships are part of a multimodal transport idea to which the port of Antwerp would like to contribute."

“In 2019, more than 42 percent of all goods in the port of Antwerp were transported by barge. In other words: Inland navigation is crucial for the accessibility of our city and our port, "says port bailiff Annick De Ridder." By focusing on technologies such as autonomous shipping, we want to further increase the share of inland navigation and its competitiveness. "

Trouble-free through dust and fog

Prof. Jan Steckel is developing advanced sensor systems for difficult conditions within the CoSys-Lab, a research group of the Faculty of Applied Engineering in Antwerp. "If you want to make autonomous shipping possible, continuous monitoring of the ship's surroundings is of the utmost importance," explains Steckel. "You can use cameras for this, but under adverse conditions - such as dust, moisture, mud, smoke or fog - they do not work properly."

Such unfavorable conditions are no problem for sonar sensors. They provide reliable observation of the environment that is also affordable. Steckel: “We were inspired by the echolocation that bats use. They send out sound waves. When these waves hit an object, the bat hears the echo of that reflection. In this way, the animal can avoid collisions without errors. "

Reflected sound

CoSys-Lab is a world leader in the field of innovative sonar technology. The possible uses are extremely diverse. The researchers are also looking at mining, for example, where a truck could automatically drive from point A to point B using the sensors.

For the project in collaboration with the port of Antwerp, the researchers developed a 3D sonar sensor with 32 waterproof, advanced microphones. The project is called eRTIS, which stands for "Real Time Imaging Sonar". Steckel: “The information is transmitted in real time, otherwise the ship would have collided with another object long ago. And 'Imaging Sonar' because we use the reflected sound that falls on the sensors to create images of the environment. "

In the last weeks of 2020, the technology was successfully tested on the “Tuimelaar”, a ship in the port of Antwerp. There will now be a follow-up project in 2021: As part of the “Smart Docking Innovation Challenge”, the port of Antwerp has given the green light for Prof. Jan Steckel's project “3D Sonar and Lidar for Vessel Monitoring”.


Prof. Jan Steckel - UAntwerp
[email protected]
+32 497 86 38 95