Originally developed for military applications, drone technology was quickly adopted by many industries. These autonomous or semi-autonomous flying devices provide unrivaled capabilities, offering new ways to approach difficult, dangerous, or challenging tasks. In the maritime sector, drones are rapidly gaining adoption. From shipboard uses to implementation on offshore energy production platforms and in commercial ports, drones can be found in nearly every aspect of the maritime environment. Drones represent a powerful risk management tool that can be used to protect facilities, vessels, and cargo.

What are Drones?

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – commonly referred to as drones – are aircraft designed to be flown without an aircrew aboard. They may be operated remotely by someone on the ground, or may use onboard computers for navigation and flight. Drones range in size from crafts the size of small airplanes to portable pocket-sized models. Drones were originally developed for missions deemed too dangerous or too labor-intensive for humans, and were quickly tasked by militaries around the world.

Today, drone technology is employed across industries, including agricultural, scientific, and recreational uses. In the maritime industry, drones may be used for inspection, surveillance, and photography of ships and facilities. Drones may even be used to deliver parts or supplies for vessels at sea. This technology may offer cost-effective solutions for complex or challenging tasks in the commercial marine environment.

How are Drones Being Used in the Maritime Industry?

Drones provide a wide range of tools for industry, and can perform dangerous or complex tasks with less risk to humans. In the marine environment, drones have been adopted in four primary roles:

  • Inspection
  • Surveillance and Security
  • Rescue
  • Delivery

Inspection of ships and facilities like ports or offshore oil/gas drilling platforms can be both challenging and dangerous for marine employees. Inspection of marine facilities may require climbing tall superstructures or accessing areas that may be hazardous. Add in the possibility of wet or stormy conditions, and inspection becomes a dangerous prospect for even the most seasoned maritime worker. Drones, on the other hand, provide incredible capabilities, allowing a remote operator to pilot the craft from a safe vantage point. Drones are typically equipped with camera systems that beam images back to the operator, and allow detailed inspections of maritime equipment and vessels.

Security of vessels and marine facilities is paramount in reducing risks, including unlawful intrusion or activities. Security personnel often have large areas to cover. Drones have been adopted for security in ports and aboard vessels, allowing operators to cover more territory. Again, camera systems and onboard lighting can provide better surveillance within marine facilities, all while reducing potential risks to security personnel.

At sea, crewmembers are at risk of being swept overboard. In the world’s open waterways, locating someone at sea can be immensely challenging. Drones equipped with cameras, infrared detectors, and lights can more easily cover large areas, helping to pinpoint those lost at sea and facilitating their rescue. Drones may also be used to drop flotation devices to crewmembers.

Delivery of critical supplies in the maritime environment is usually handled by ships or by helicopter. Both of these options can be expensive, not to mention dangerous. Imagine if emergency medical supplies or a mission-critical piece of hardware needed to be delivered right away, and the role of drones in this operation becomes clear. Vessels and aircrafts may not be able to reach ships at sea, especially if weather or sea conditions prove hazardous. Drones can more easily deliver supplies in a cost-effective manner, and can do so without putting crewmembers at risk.

Emerging Applications for Drones in the Maritime Environment

Drone technology has proved useful for a wide range of applications in the commercial maritime industry. These devices serve as a risk management tool for vessel owners and facility managers, supplementing the protection of commercial marine insurance policies. Security, inspection, rescue, and delivery are not the only options that drones can assist with; new applications are being explored by the maritime sector.

One novel application of drone technology is its use in detecting environmental pollution. In the city of Istanbul, Turkey, the city’s Metropolitan Municipality Marine Services Directorate uses remotely-piloted aircraft to monitor vessels plying the Bosphorus River for pollution emissions. The European Space Agency is also using drones to detect harmful environmental emissions in critical waterways like the English Channel and the North Sea. Fitted with powerful sensors, drones are able to sniff out emissions like Sulphur and carbon dioxide before they can cause environmental damage.

As this technology matures, it is only natural that the commercial marine industry will find new ways of adopting this technology to promote safety and security within the marine environment. For now, drones have revolutionized many aspects of the maritime sector, providing cost-effective solutions that help to minimize risks to personnel and equipment.

About Merrimac Marine Insurance

At Merrimac Marine, we are dedicated to providing insurance for the marine industry to protect your clients’ business and assets. For more information about our products and programs, contact our specialists today at (800) 681-1998.