How are aerial drones being used in maritime?

How are aerial drones being used in maritime?

Though still seen by many as a toy for hobbyists, aerial drones are transforming industries including defence, logistics, agriculture and construction. There are a number of groundbreaking projects and proofs of concept using drone technology currently being undertaken in the maritime sector. Though there are some regulatory hurdles yet to be overcome, the rapidly decreasing cost of this technology means it could become an indispensable part of the toolkit for everyone from ship’s surveyors, to agents, to offshore supply teams.

Drones in ship surveying

One of the clearest use cases for drones is in surveying. Classification societies, ship management teams, and port/flag state surveyors often need to conduct surveys in hard to reach places to asses a vessel’s condition. This can involve entering tanks and ballast spaces, working at heights to inspect masts or communication equipment, or travelling out to offshore structures. These inspections clearly fall under the four D’s that act as a litmus test for jobs that should be automated; dull, dirty, dangerous, and dear (expensive).

Dutch startup RIMS BV specialises in using advanced robotics for inspection and maintenance in the maritime and offshore industries. They have now been approved by nine classification societies to carry out remote inspection work to ensure that ships are complying with class and flag state regulations. DNV GL has also invested heavily in developing a drone surveying capability. They have a team of 16 drone surveyors who fly specially adapted commercial drones to inspect vessels, offshore structures, and jack up legs.

By using drones in their operations, surveying teams are able to reduce preparation time, eliminate the need for staging or rafting, minimise the risk of damage to tanks, and maximise safety for personnel.

Drones in ships agency

In large anchorage ports like Singapore and Fujairah, ships agency service providers spend hundreds of hours each year transferring supplies, spare parts and crew members to ships anchored off the coast. Currently, the best way to make those deliveries is by launch boat, but it is costly, can be unsafe, and has a detrimental impact on the local environment.

In March 2019, a drone lifted off from Marina South Pier in Singapore and flew out to a waiting ship in the Eastern Working Anchorage. The drone was carrying parts 3D-printed in an onshore micro-factory. It dropped off its 1.5kg payload on the deck of the MV Pacific Centurion and returned to base. This was the first commercial drone delivery to a vessel at anchor and it was conducted as part of a collaborative project between aviation giant Airbus and Wilhelmsen, a leading ships agency service provider. The entire operation took just 10 minutes, less than half the time it would have taken by boat.

Wilhelmsen and Airbus trialled the first commercial delivery to a ship by drone in March 2019. Credit: Wilhelmsen
Wilhelmsen and Airbus trialled the first commercial delivery to a ship by drone in March 2019. Credit: Wilhelmsen

Wilhelmsen predicts that the delivery of light, time critical packages like spare parts, medical supplies and cash by drone could reduce costs by up to 90% when compared to launch boat.

Drones in offshore support

Currently, the offshore industry relies on helicopters for the transport of supplies, parts, and people out to rigs and installations. However, Singapore based F-Drones is working to change that. The Entrepreneur First backed startup is working on drones that have a combination of heavy payload and long-range capabilities. Their drone can take-off vertically, fly like a fixed-wing aircraft, and land on a moving target.

The drone will be theoretically able to make deliveries of up to 100kg to ships and oil rigs. It will be able to carry a 50kg payload up to 250km and land on a moving target making it a viable replacement for transporting stores to offshore rigs by helicopter or to passing ships by launch boat.

Drones for intelligence and situational awareness

The reason the bridge of a ship is usually on one of its highest decks is that the higher up you are the further you can see. Drones make it possible to massively increase the field of view for a vessel or coastal state for search and rescue, intelligence operations, or just situational awareness. Even in poor visibility, drones equipped with thermal imaging, radio detection, and other sensors can “see” well beyond the normal capability of a ship, VTS, or coastguard station.

The operational intelligence market is the most established sector for maritime drones. In January 2017, the European Maritime Safety Agency awarded the largest ever civilian maritime drone contract. The €67million contract was awarded to Martek Marine, part of the James Fisher family of companies and is aimed at using drones to track and trace vessel emissions throughout the EU.

U.S based startup Planck Aerosystems is developing the technology to make it possible to “drone enable” any ship or truck. With implications for defence, search and rescue, and situational awareness, their drones use computer vision to autonomously take off from and land on moving targets including workboats, ships, and land vehicles.

Also based in the U.S is drone scaleup Airobotics. Having raised more than $100million as of December 2018, they are well placed to push drone technology out to the wider maritime industry. They are currently focused on a number of verticals including mining, oil and gas, industrial facilities, and ports.

Airobotics’ ports solution helps users to effectively monitor vessel traffic, gather intelligence for security, and conduct more effective emergency response and search and rescue. Their capability includes oil spill detection, equipment monitoring, and inventory tracking in bulk facilities.

As automation technology advances, even the most complex of drone operations could be conducted largely without human input, leaving the end-user free to concentrate on the end goal (search and rescue, inspection, delivery), rather than on flying. Currently, the cost of drone technology makes it prohibitive for many use cases, but both the costs and barriers to entry are dropping fast. If the current trend continues, it is only a matter of time before drones are commonplace on commercial ships and offshore installations.