Following the release of our deep-dive report on the uses of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the maritime sector, Thetius analyst Nic Gardner takes a whistle-stop tour of maritime aerial drone technology and asks: will the maritime industry take a leading role in propelling aerial drone technology to the next level?
In 2018, a small aerial drone closed London Gatwick Airport for 33 hours. Over 1,000 flights were cancelled, 140,000 passengers were stranded, and it cost airlines more than £47 million.
If a simple consumer drone did that, what could organised criminals or hostile states do? Just last month, a military grade drone was implicated in an incident involving a tanker in the Arabian Sea, tragically resulting in loss of life.
However, the maritime industry is also embracing aerial drone technology in more positive ways and harnessing the new capabilities that they bring.
What are drones?
Drones are similar to remote-control planes, except that aerial drones:
- are more stable and manoeuvrable;
- can carry heavier loads; and
- have a longer range.
They’re just a sensor platform. Most have cameras and gyro stabilisation, a remote control system, and can transmit data; many also carry specialised sensors such as environmental and range sensors, and position-finding technology.
Maritime challenges for aerial drones
As with every technology, there are problems that must be overcome.
The marine environment is hazardous to drones. Ships move, fooling drones’ “return-to-base” function; moisture reduces battery performance, increasing the chance of a crash; and they can’t handle bad weather. They’re also hazardous to us, given the fire risk of spare batteries, and the lack of intrinsically safe aerial drones. However, they’re often better than the alternatives.
On the security front, many drones’ control signals aren’t encrypted, so hackers can easily take control. Hostile operators can ‘jam’ control and GPS signals, while GPS spoofing makes the drone think it’s somewhere else. Criminals can use spoofing to redirect drones, bypass return-to-base, or even deliberately crash them.
While flying near aircraft is an obvious problem, so are flying non-intrinsically safe drones into flammable atmospheres, dropping payloads, and colliding with people and objects. Although aerial drones have less environmental impact than alternatives, there are still limited resources like lithium, and the pollution of drones lost at sea to consider.
Current maritime uses for aerial drones
There are five categories of maritime applications for drones:
- Small-scale inspections
- Large-scale inspections
- Emergency response
1. Small-scale inspection
The concept of aerial drone inspections is simple: fly a drone around, and record the flight. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can flag areas of interest, and the drone can gas-test a space before someone enters. This saves time and money, and cuts inspections from days to hours. Hold and tank inspections, flares, wind turbine blades, and draft surveys are all easier with drones.
2. Large-scale survey and inspection
The ocean is big, ships are small, planes are expensive, and aerial drones are cheap. That’s why the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), Australia, Belize and the Seychelles use drones for coastal monitoring—they’re perfect for patrolling enormous areas.
3. Emergency response
After the first recorded drone surf rescue, Little Ripper branched out to warn swimmers of sharks and crocodiles. In 2020, long-range SAR drones showed promise in trials.
Some organisations use drones to monitor refugees. In five months, drones saved over 8,800 lives, and are being tested to locate distressed vessels.
Researching marine animals is tricky, but drones help. Unlike alternatives, drones have little impact on animals. In addition, drone research into temperature and water movement identifies sites for offshore wind farms, tidal generators, and more.
5. Delivery and logistics
Drone delivery to ships is faster, safer and cheaper than boats or helicopters. Proven ashore, and tested at sea in 2019, this approach is sure to catch on. Radio frequency ID (RFID) tagging is spreading. In container yards, drone relays could help to complete inventories or locate a particular cargo unit.
Future maritime uses for aerial drones
In maritime, there are few areas that can’t use aerial drones. Dropping life rings, life rafts, or even burning gasoline (yes, on purpose!); shipboard firefighting; de-icing ships and wind turbines; locating gas leaks; and generating 3D models for extended reality (XR) and advanced simulation are just a few of the foreseeable uses for maritime aerial drones.
On many ships it’s impossible to complete tasks in the time allowed, leading to overwork, fatigue, and accidents. We must either increase crew, or decrease work.
Even the cheapest drones reduce workloads and improve safety. The widespread adoption of drones ashore almost guarantees their spread in maritime. As technology improves, aerial drones can take advantage of every development. For once, maybe the maritime industry will even lead the way.
This article is based in part upon an in-depth report on maritime aerial drones, now available to Thetius subscribers. To get access, please drop us a message at https://thetius.com/callback/ and one of our team will be in touch.