Send in the Drones
Drone technology has traditionally been associated with the military but has more recently become popular for personal and commercial uses, with high-definition video cameras installed. They are becoming more common in shipping. The use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is currently a hot topic for the maritime industry.
As technology has evolved, the extent of applications for drones has expanded into numerous fields, including pollution monitoring, search-and-rescue operations, and even the detection of illicit activity such as illegal fishing. Operators are also using drones to assess the condition of assets, such as oil rigs, pipelines and offshore turbines, reducing the need for risky human inspections. In the North Sea, fishing vessels carrying drones are being used to undertake survey work and environmental monitoring. The potential uses of drones in shipping are for deliveries and Surveys (inspection). Currently, the biggest single use of drones in shipping is for inspection purposes.
On some vessels, human surveyors have been replaced by hovering UAVs decked out with recording equipment, making it easier and quicker to identify corrosion, deformation, and damage to on-board structures. Drones are able to carry out survey tasks quickly and efficiently, preventing expensive and time-consuming workarounds for surveyors.
Some tanks on ships are more than 25m high, and therefore require the introduction of scaffolding, hung staging equipment and other specialized solutions such as portable gas detectors, all of which need to be checked and certified for safety.
UAVs have been tested as remote inspection devices and are now being introduced as survey methodologies for bulk carriers and container ships. This allows for a much more comprehensive survey given the ease with which drones can access hard-to-reach areas as well as reduce risks.
In terms of ship inspections, drone technologies are used to effectively carry out inspections of cargo tanks and holds, a risky task for crew. Dangerous gases are a notable cause of fatalities at sea, where enclosed cargo holds are known to contain noxious and flammable gases. Cargo tanks can sometimes be filled with water during a process known as rafting, which presents an obvious danger to anyone carrying out inspections inside the tanks.
Drones can also be employed to carry out inspections at height, assess the structural integrity of a vessel or to monitor the loading of cargo. The use of drones reduces inspection time per hold from an hour to 15 minutes. The hold inspection process involves ships which have five to nine holds which a person checks by climbing down ladders.
The inspector has to be physically fit, use fall protection, and carry a parrot (oxygen meter) to make sure there is enough air in the hold. And this takes a lot of time. With drones, we can fly them into a hold and capture 4K images, but also infra-red, and other types of cameras that can show cracks or other specific parameters that cannot be seen with the naked eye.
Once a drone is programmed to go into a certain ship, it can become an autonomous process, a better way to assess the condition of the cargo hold, avoiding exposure of the personnel from a potentially hazardous situation. A key advantage of using drones is making inspections safer.
If there is an incident, drones could also be used to assess damage, helping to mitigate losses, avoid loss of life or limit any potential environmental impact. Using drones instead of the traditional process is the smarter solution for cargo hold inspection, it saves time and money while reducing risks to the company’s people and property