The Drones of Shipping

By May 24, 2016 Article, Technology No Comments

^ Test Drone LE 4-8X Dual ATEX Flying to Maersk Edgar
Image Courtesy of the Maersk Group at

For a Better Meaning of ‘Drone’

Utter the word drone and our thoughts drift to those notorious unmanned aircrafts that secretly bombed terrorists in Afghanistan. In fact, a drone strike in Pakistan killed a heavyweight Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour on Saturday, May 20, 2016.

That was before Amazon announced of its plans to use drones for short distance air delivery of parcels in early 2014. Two years down the line, there was another groundbreaking development. This one went beyond announcements, it spoke of results.

Maersk Tankers successfully operated a drone to deliver a 1.2 kg package across 250 meters over the sea despite heavy fog and bad weather threatening to play spoilsport in the first-of-its-kind trial.

Now, Maersk Tankers is a division of the Maersk Group that operates the world’s largest container shipping company, Maersk Line. When a company as big as this takes up something innovative, the world has to sit up and takes note.

For the potential of drones is tremendous. From in-depth inspections of difficult-to-reach spots on a ship, drones can assist with firefighting, aerial surveillance of pollution and poachers, safety watch, weather updates, locating pitfalls in ice-laden waters . . . the list is endless.

So much so, Business Insider believes the world will spend 12% of an estimated $98 billion to acquire drones for commercial applications over the period between 2014 and 2024. That’s an overwhelming $11.76 billion.

The Splitting of the MOL Comfort: Note the Rupture at the Mid-Section Image Courtesy of Mercator Media 2016 Retrieved From

The Splitting of the MOL Comfort: Note the Rupture at the Mid-Section
Image Courtesy of Mercator Media 2016
Retrieved From

An Avoidable Mishap?

June 17, 2013; Off the coast of Mumbai: MHI Nagasaki Shipyard built MOL Comfort broke into two halves during her transit from Singapore to Jeddah. The Japanese Maritime Bureau appointed investigation committee zeroed in on two possible causes.

One, the buckling of the bottom shell plating on account of excessively high girder loads. Second, fatigue cracking of the welded structure. The investigation went further and examined six of MOL Comfort’s sister ships.

The findings were shocking. On five out of these six vessels, they found buckling deformations of a maximum 20 mm on the bottom shell plating near the center line of the transverse section.

Engineers design container ships with safeguards to stand such buckling / bending created by the difference between the upward buoyant force and the downward cargo load. While the downward load is spread evenly along the ship’s length, the buoyant force acts around the ship’s center.

Container vessels therefore sail with a mild hog – the bow and stern are slightly below the level of the midsection. Rough seas and improper loading aggravate the bending stresses.

How Buoyancy Force & Container Load Create Bending Moment & Cause Distortion @ a Ship’s Midsection (Diagram Not to Scale)

How Buoyancy Force & Container Load Create Bending Moment & Cause Distortion @ a Ship’s Midsection (Diagram Not to Scale)

In the diagram above, the buoyancy force (FB) acts vertically upwards while the weight (W) of the ship acts vertically downward. When the ship is stationary, both these forces act along the same line. When in motion, these forces form a restoring moment that provides stability to the ship.

Our interest here is the moment created due to the difference between the buoyant force and the load / weight of the containers (LC). The container load is spread evenly along the ship’s bottom plate.

In order to provide better visualization, we have shown two more arrows with LC each denoting the container load acting along each side of the ship’s midsection. You can see how the said difference bends the bottom plate. Please note, the diagram is not to scale.

For a floating ship, the buoyant force always exceeds its weight – otherwise the ship will not float in the first place. The magnitude of the buoyant force equals the weight of the water that the ship displaces.

Even though ships are made of metal, they can float because their average density is less than that of water. Designers ensure this by building in open, air-filled spaces inside ships. This lowers the average density of the ship structure.

Too bad, they could detect the defects on MOL Comfort. If they had used drones – provided the application of drones was a viable alternative back then – things could perhaps have been different. Fortunately, there were no casualties.

Between Barge & Tanker: Bad Weather Forced Technicians to Launch Test Drone LE 4-8X Dual ATEX  from a Barge Image Courtesy of YouTube at Retrieved From

Between Barge & Tanker: Bad Weather Forced Technicians to Launch Test Drone LE 4-8X Dual ATEX from a Barge
Image Courtesy of YouTube at
Retrieved From

Successfully Pioneering Trial

Fast forward to the recent past. In late January this year, a flying LE 4-8X Dual ATEX drone dropped a 1.2 kilo box of cookies on the deck of Maersk Edgar from a height of 5 meters while the tanker was at sea near Kalundborg, Denmark.

Not that the tanker was running short of cookies. The company was testing the utility of drones for delivering packages vis-à-vis delivering them conventionally. While doing so, the drone flew into winds howling at 5-6 meters per second. The moment was indeed historic!

By their very nature, tanker schedules are not fixed. You cannot tell far in advance which port it will call on next. Add to that the complexities that logistics or foul weather may present without a moment’s notice and you get an idea of the pervasive uncertainty.

And if the tanker is not alongside the quay while at port, delivering packages via barges is slow and costs around $1,000 or more. Plus, ships have to stop or slow down to receive packages via barges. Large packages justify this expense. Smaller ones don’t.

Octocopter Drone LE 4-8X Dual ATEX Image Courtesy of Xamen Technologies at

Octocopter Drone LE 4-8X Dual ATEX
Image Courtesy of Xamen Technologies at

But smaller packages can be no less important. Medicines can be a critically urgent requirement. And spares, and mail. This is precisely where drones make their strong presence felt. Maersk Tankers estimates such drones can save for it $3,000 to $9000 per vessel per year.

All was not hunky-dory though. The Maersk team had to launch the drone from a tugboat, for a heavy fog precluded a shore-based launch. This meant, the drone had to fly for 250 m or about 270 yards instead of the planned distance of 1 km. Nevertheless, the trial was a success.

French company Xamen made the test drone LE 4-8X Dual ATEX. It holds ATEX zone 2 approval for use in possibly explosive environs, a critical requirement because it must not generate sparks in case it crashes onboard a tanker carrying inflammable cargo.

Test drone LE 4-8X Dual ATEX is the first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can operate safely in explosive ambiences. Oil tankers, chemical carriers, and LNG ships can gainfully employ it to invetigate areas with a high risk of explosion on account of combustible gas or vapor.

With a wingspan of 104 cm and height of 40 cm, the octocopter drone (drone with 8 rotors) can hit a maximum speed of 16 m/s and deliver a maximum payload of 2 kg in 1.5 minutes. Non ATEX-approved drones can already transport payloads of up to 10 kg.

Technical Specifications for the LE 4-8X Dual ATEX drone are as follows:

TAble 1 - Feature SpecificationOther features of this pioneering UAV include:

  • 1 X Camera Atex (Zone 2 3G Ex nR IIC T6)
  • Optional Gas Detector
  • Parachute
  • 50 Waypoint Autopilot
  • 2 X Pilot Stations (Zone 2 II 3G IIB T5) with Return Video
  • 2 X Batteries
  • 4 X Carrying Cases (UAV, Stations, Batteries)

Maersk is exploring applications of drones for other categories of vessels. As is always the case with all of Maersk’s trials, the drone trial was conducted in accordance with local laws in addition to the group’s high safety and health standards.

With further advance of technology, we could have drones traversing large distances in order to deliver parts to ships with engine trouble. Currently, helicopters and long range aircrafts drop such emergency spares. Such operations entail sizeable expenditure.

All this innovation and rigorous compliance ensured that the test drone delivered the cookies on its designated landing spot. Aboard Maersk Edgar, Captain Peder Georg Kastrup Christensen distributed the unbroken cookies to the crew. One deliciously crispy flight that was!

Drones in the Shipping Industry

Broader trends are of course of greater interest. The maritime industry is increasingly looking to tap the promise held by drones. Apparently, this potential is boundless. Please note, we are not talking of large unmanned vehicles alone.

The interest extends into the realm of smaller drones that can access cramped locations too small for humans to deal with. Or the venue might be too dangerous for humans to approach – a room on fire, a toxic leak, or a smoky, misty environ full of pitfalls. Worse still, a combination of all.

In Action Aboard ex-USS Shadwell: The Autonomous Fire Detector Drone developed by the Carnegie Melon University & the Company Sensible Machines Image Courtesy of the Carnegie Melon University at

In Action Aboard ex-USS Shadwell: The Autonomous Fire Detector Drone developed by the Carnegie Melon University & the Company Sensible Machines
Image Courtesy of the Carnegie Melon University at

Efficiency and speed are the paramount considerations here. A drone can spot a defect more quickly and more accurately than a human. More so, in inaccessible areas under exacting conditions. And you can fix a defect only if you can locate it in the first place.

Tough environs such as those involving fire, smoke, cramped spaces, underwater locations, or those infested by excessive heat, pressure, or pollution can take a heavy toll on the human mind and body.

Even the most seasoned of personnel is prone to cognitive errors in such conditions. Errors, whose consequences can be catastrophic and leave a vast and permanent imprint on the lives of many.

Remontowa Shipyard Repair, Poland, in September 2015 used a drone equipped with a high-definition camera to look for corrosion, the state of protective coatings, and cracks inside the cargo tanks of a vessel after they had overhauled the ship.

Come 2018, and the Japanese too will jump in the ring. They are more interested in operating drones to check on weather and ships and to boost disaster responses on and around uninhabited islands.

Safety surveillance aboard rigs and platform is another potential area for the application of drones. Plus, they could help rig managers by providing precise data on offshore weather.

Naval ships are not lagging behind on this frontier. In June 2015, the UK Royal Navy used drones to examine the inaccessible exteriors of HMS Diamond to ‘reduce time and cost during maintenance periods, as well as allowing ships to diagnose their own defects at sea.’

Researchers from the Carnegie Melon University and the company Sensible Machines developed a 23 inch by 12 inch quadrotor drone and used it aboard ex-USS Shadwell, a former US warship, to collect data on onboard firefighting.

Maneuvering autonomously through a smoke-filled area, the drone detected and located the source of the fire. Forewarned is forearmed and such data can serve as an invaluable guide for firefighters and rescuers, saving precious life and limb.

Technical Specifications of this low-cost, lightweight drone:

Table 2Talking of human safety, drones could help detect and neutralize sea mines. A relic of past wars, countless such mines dot the world’s oceans and seas. Every unexploded mine constitutes serious peril to ships and their inhabitants.

In early 2015, the Italian Navy announced its operations that dismantled sea mines dating back to the Second World War utilizing unmanned submarines. Drones can make such operations quicker, safer, and more economical.

Martime border control and law enforcement too have joined the bandwagon. European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) has expressed the possibility of employing drones to watch over oceanic channels notorious for refugee transit. Search and rescue will be much simpler then.

Icebreakers of the Canadian Coast Guard routinely mobilize unmanned helicopters to look for the hazards that lie ahead. Canadian bulk carriers have started to do the same.

Italian Navy Blows up a Detected Mine Image Courtesy of YouTube at Retrieved From

Italian Navy Blows up a Detected Mine
Image Courtesy of YouTube at
Retrieved From

Authorities at the Port of Busan are making rapid strides towards using high-definition camera equipped drones to monitor and clamp down on vessels illegally anchored in the sea lanes around the port.

With so much happening, pollution control authorities cannot be far behind. The European Space Agency in active collaboration with the EMSA is looking into the viability of ‘sniffing’ sulphur and carbon emissions from ships plying in the North and the Baltic Seas with drones.

For the purpose, it has launched the RAPSODY Project spearheaded by Tekever’s AR5 Life Ray Evolution UAV. The project will also look into search and rescue missions in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean and North Seas.

Capable of wide area surveillance with numerous onboard sensors for pattern detection, the AR5 can successfully execute diverse missions near the shore and away from it:

  • Tekever AR5 Life Ray Evolution UAV Image Courtesy of Tekever at Sterling features of this UAV include:

    Tekever AR5 Life Ray Evolution UAV
    Image Courtesy of Tekever at

    border protection and infrastructure monitoring

  • oil spill detection and fire surveillance
  • search and rescue
  • anti-piracy and traffic control
  • fishery support

Sterling features of this UAV include:

  • ready to deploy
  • flexible payload options
  • SATCOM enabled
  • low maintenance
  • ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) free
  • lowest total cost of ownership

Technical Specifications of the AR5 Life Ray Evolution UAV:

Table 3Inspired by the European efforts, the Metropilitan Municipality Marine Services Directorate of Istanbul will shortly deploy camera-armed-drones to oversee maritime pollution in the Bosporus strait.

Apart from the menace of pollution, there is that of the pirates.  Considering the deadly perils involved in venturing too close to these maritime outlaws, drones could be a fantastic option for surveillance.


Possible misuse is a major concern with any new or even existing technology. For, like fire, technology is a good servant, but a very bad master. Bad to the point of being atrocious, even tyrannical.

Can such drones cause inconvenience through too much interference? Will they become an instrument for harassment by officials? And what of their technical competence? Will they fail en route and sink in the sea? Or can they fall on the ship and cause injuries?

Apprehension about change is instinctive human behavior simply because change makes us step out of our comfort zone. But step out we have to. For, otherwise, we would still be caveman. Doesn’t sound like an attractive proposal, does it?

They haven’t arrived yet, but drones are here to stay. Not just over sea. Online shopping colossus is lobbying hard to get amended those regulations that restrict drone flying in the U.S. airspace.

Amazon is looking to deliver packages by air over shorter distances through its Amazon Air concept. Google too is exploring the idea of city-wide air delivery under its operation Project Wing. We are of course years, even decades away from this. Nevertheless, the promise is enthralling!

Last but definitely not the least is the unmanned ship Rolls Royce is building. This isn’t stuff out of a sci-fi movie. We could witness such a ship within the next two decades or so. Then, the term drone in the context of shipping will have a completely different meaning.

Need to know more on such developments with a futuristic edge? Visit our blog.

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