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The growing role for aerial drones in the maritime industry

By Simon Cheeseman of ORE Catapult, Marine-i partner

The use of aerial drones has been growing steadily over recent years, as more evidence is gathered about the benefits and reliability of this technology. This is creating a number of important new opportunities for innovative marine technology businesses.


Use of drones in offshore asset inspection

There are many important benefits in using aerial drones to inspect marine assets, especially in the offshore wind industry.

·        As the industry grows, there is a massive number of blades that need to be inspected, so any technology that reduces the time and cost associated with inspections has a huge cost benefit.

·        With the large capital investment in turbine blades, accurate end of warranty inspections take on an even greater importance.

·        Conventional inspections typically require personnel to abseil down the blades using ropes. Not only is this a cumbersome process, it can also be hazardous for the maintenance teams.

·        The time spent travelling to wind farms in rough seas can be exhausting for the teams and limits the amount of useful time they can spend on site.

The use of drones to carry out these tasks can overcome the above challenges. Inspections can be carried out quickly and safely, and the data gathered from the survey is immediately available for analysis. Drones can also help to minimise the amount of time that a turbine needs to be offline for inspection purposes, which is a further cost saving.

For these reasons, the offshore wind industry is set to become a major customer for this technology over the coming years. This is an area where Marine-i has been taking a lead and we ran a Discovery Room day on the use of drones for offshore asset inspection which involved some of the leading experts in this technology. You can read details about our Discovery Room:

The Marine-i team have supported a number of enterprises in Cornwall who are active in this field. One example is Swathe Services who already offer drones to customers for surveying purposes, providing a complete service. A specialist division of Swathe called Unmanned Survey Solutions, is developing a pioneering autonomous survey vessel. Their Ascension Class USV is designed to carry out surveying tasks in open seas for long endurance missions. It will have the capability to launch and recover an aerial drone for wind turbine inspections. It is believed that this vessel, which has received grant support from Marine-i, will be a real game-changer for the industry

You can read more about Unmanned Survey Solutions and their ambitious plans here:


Use of drones in ship inspection

Conventional ship inspections are expensive, time consuming, labour intensive, and can be hazardous for the crew. Drones are used not only for inspecting the ship’s structure but also for cargo holds and ballast tanks. Tanks can sometimes contain noxious fumes, so using drones is much safer than sending in crew members.

Drones can be flown at great height and in dangerous conditions to survey the entire structure of the ship, carrying out the process much more quickly than would be possible with manual inspections. Inspecting large internal spaces manually can often require the fitting of specialised   ladders and scaffolding, all of which adds considerably to the duration of the inspections. Operators are now learning that the time savings achievable with drones can have a big impact on their profitability.

The growth of the sector has been aided by the development of high-quality scanning equipment and HD video. This gives crews an array of highly detailed information to work from, with data that is less prone to human recording errors.

Recently, drones have been employed to sample emissions from ships. For example, the port of Hong Kong has announced that it is gearing up to use drones to scan ships’ emissions and monitor compliance with its new environmental legislation.


Potential future developments for drones

Autonomous systems. Currently, an operator needs to control the drone and manually steer it through its inspection regime. In the future, autonomous drones will be pre-programmed with a map of the relevant marine asset and will work their way through the inspection automatically. This could link to advanced AI systems to interpret the rich and complex data that would be obtained.

Hybrid drones. A new breed of drones will be able to carry out inspections both above and below the waterline. There are already devices that can use their propulsions system to dive under the water. This may eliminate the need to send divers down to carry out hazardous inspections and may reduce the amount of time that ships would need to spend in dry dock.


Opportunities for businesses

Drone technology is an area where UK companies are already playing a leading role. In fact, PwC have forecast that, by 2030, drones will be worth a massive £42 billion to the UK economy. This is creating a raft of new opportunities for innovative companies to develop new and better drone designs, propulsion systems, video and sensor equipment, power and control solutions, and software/AI support.

Marine-i can support your business and help you make the most of this growing opportunity. Find out more here: