Enthusiasm for the current and projected role of drones in the maritime industry is, to say the least, sky high. More than just cool high-tech gadgets, drones are in the process of changing the way the industry handles everything from hull inspections to shore-to-ship deliveries, and more.
Sectors of the industry that have starting using drones include:
- Offshore wind-farm developers
- Cruise lines
- Shore-to-ship package couriers
- Container ports
- Coast Guard
- Bathymetric surveyors
As the above users have discovered, employing a drone to perform a task is often safer, faster, and less expensive than conventional options.
Back in March of this year, one of the largest tanker fleets in the world — Maersk Tankers — tested whether drones could be used to supply vessels at sea with things like mail, medicine, or small parts. The answer? Yes! A drone carrying a package took off from a location near the shore, zoomed across ocean waters to a Maersk vessel, and from a height of 5m, dropped off its small cargo to waiting crew members on deck. Before the advent of drones, a helicopter would have been the likely method of delivery. The cost advantages of this new approach are obvious.
It’s no wonder, then, that drone use is gaining in popularity across the globe. During a recent three-month trial-run in the Port of Durban, South Africa’s Transnet National Port Authority used drones to monitor road-traffic in and out of the port. Drones also provided an overall view of port operations and infrastructure. Aquatic drones were used, too, for hull inspections.
In Korea, the Port of Busan has begun employing drones as watchdogs, of sorts, keeping an eye out for vessels in sea lanes illegally. In addition, the Port plans to have drones monitor the condition of container stacks in port — a tactic already in play at the port of Abu Dhabi.
In a previous blog on this site, China Cracks down on Maritime Emissions, the effects of ships’ toxic emissions on personal and environmental health were discussed. Emission-sniffing drones, fitted with sulfur and carbon dioxide sensors, are now able to help identify polluters.
Drones making a difference in people’s lives
Drones are having an impact not just in a variety of places, but also, in a very real way, on people. In Europe, Markku Mylly, the director of the European Maritime Safety Agency, has gone on record as touting the use of drones to support search-and-rescue efforts in waters where refugees, crowded into less-than seaworthy boats, travel in hopes of finding asylum.
Here in the States, Admiral Charles Michael said he envisions a time in the not-too-distant future when every U.S. Coast Guard asset will have a drone on hand to help with search-and-rescue missions, as well as aid in everything from spill response to ship inspections.
And thanks to drones, surveyors who’ve been called on regularly to inspect cargo tanks will no longer have to risk life and limb to get a closer look at those out-of-the-way spaces with only high-rope access. Sending in the drones can get that dangerous job done faster and without any sudden side trips to the ER.
The future of drones in the maritime industry
As with most new technologies, there are challenges yet to be worked through before drones in the maritime industry become the norm, instead of the “new thing.” For safety’s sake, training for drone pilots will need to be thorough and specific. Laws governing the use of drones will need to continue to evolve along with the industry. And the drones themselves will require from their handlers ongoing maintenance and more than a little software expertise.
Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that drones have begun to play a significant role in the maritime industry, and by all indications, it’s a role that will continue to grow.
As a part of Oceaneering's Global Data Solutions team, we have access to one of the best UAS programs in the industry. Many customers in the Oil and Gas industry use UAVs to perform routine inspections of their remote assets (such as pipelines) and provide enhanced data sets in a much safer and cost efficient manner. To learn more about the benefits of using UAS, please contact us at 713-337-3737.