Eyes in the sky

Published by John Churchill on 21 September 2018

A container shipping terminal, with its mix of people, heavy objects and moving machines, poses many safety risks. At its inland service business in Chile, APM Terminals is using drones to improve safety at its facilities. 

Category: News articles Keywords: Featured Chile


APM Terminals, Inland Services in Chile are among the first using drones for safety, security and operations efficiency.


There used to be ten safety supervisors walking the grounds of APM Terminals’ inland services facilities in San Antonio and Santiago, Chile, monitoring all activities. Now there are none.

If you stand at one of the facilities and look up, you’ll see what has replaced them – drones.

“Our safety supervisors are the ones tasked with keeping the people and activities at our facilities safe, but by doing their jobs next to container stacks, trucks and other machinery, they were exposed to the highest risks,” says Hector Espinoza, Director for Latin America at Container Operators S.A., a subsidiary company of APM Terminals. “I knew the mining industry was having success with drones for safety, so we started testing it out,” he says.

The testing began in 2016. Since, drones were used to periodically film the site’s operations, looking at traffic flows, monitoring container stack efficiency and unsafe behaviour, for example truck drivers leaving their cabins. Using drones, operations can be documented and analyzed from above. It provides a point of view that was not available before.

Greater visibility

APM Terminals, Inland Services in Chile are among the first using drones for safety, security and operations efficiency. Today, three drones – one in Santiago and two in the larger facility in San Antonio – have replaced the 10 safety supervisors who have been redeployed to workshops and areas with less machine traffic and other risks like high container stacks.

All visitors to the terminal are required to agree to the facility’s safety policies, which informs them of the safety rules in force as well as the presence of the drone. Early versions of the drone included only a camera, but they now each have sensors for night-time flying as well as a speaker to communicate directly with people on the ground.

“The drones are guided by geofencing and what amounts to a route map for flying. The pilot has a live-stream view, so he can make phone calls to the necessary people or even fly in and use the speakers to inform a truck driver that he needs to get back into his truck,” Espinoza says.

He says that after the drones arrived there’s much greater visibility of the terminal operations and ‘hot spots’ like traffic or other obstacles as well as traffic flow, container stack efficiency and unsafe behaviour, such as truck drivers getting out of their cabs. The drones can also easily perform otherwise dangerous tasks such as rooftop and crane inspections.

“Blind-spots between high density stacks of containers now are totally visible from a bird’s eye view,” Espinoza says, adding, that the management team in Chile has plans to systematically review all critical tasks using the drone.

Have other terminals learned from your experience of using drones to monitor safety?

“It is expected to replicate in other business units this low-cost initiative to reinforce our commitment to safe operations, since safety is paramount to our business' success, our license to operate,” Espinoza says.