Automate the Freight: Maritime Drone Deliveries

Ships at sea are literally islands unto themselves. If what you need isn’t on board, good luck getting it in the middle of the Pacific. As such, most ships are really well equipped with spare parts and even with raw materials and the tools needed to fabricate most of what they can’t store, and mariners are famed for their ability to make do with what they’ve got.

But as self-sufficient as a ship at sea might be, the unexpected can always happen. A vital system could fail for lack of a simple spare part, at best resulting in a delay for the shipping company and at worst putting the crew in mortal danger. Another vessel can be dispatched to assist, or if the ship is close enough ashore a helicopter rendezvous might be arranged. Expensive options both, which is why some shipping companies are experimenting with drone deliveries to and from ships at sea.

“Cookie Drone off the Starboard Beam!”

We’ve discussed plans for heavy-lift drones for rapid transoceanic freight, but ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship deliveries are perhaps more compelling use cases for aerial support of shipping. While it’s true that the cases where a ship at sea needs support from shore are rare, there are more common and prosaic transportation needs that could be addressed by drones.

At the risk of stating the painfully obvious, ships are big. Really big. Modern vessels are among the largest moving objects ever made, and some ports can’t even accommodate them. Some, like supertankers, would make lousy neighbors even if they could fit, and many are loaded and unloaded at offshore oil terminals, over dozens of nautical miles offshore. Moored at these tiny artificial islands connected to the shore only by pipelines, tankers often find themselves in need of shuttling documents, mail, small supplies, and even cash back and forth to shore while waiting for cargo operations to complete, sometimes for days.

Traditionally a launch is sent for such jobs, but it’s wasteful to pay thousands of dollars to ferry a few documents around. That’s why the Maersk shipping line recently performed an experiment with drone delivery to a tanker at sea. Originally intended to deliver a symbolic package — a box of cookies — to the Maersk Edgar while underway a kilometer off Copenhagen, bad weather meant they had to cheat a bit. The octocopter, specially built to operate safely over the tanker and not pose a fire risk in case of a crash, was piloted from a small boat 250 meters away from the tanker and dropped the payload without incident.

This was a trivial experiment for proof of principle only, and was not an autonomous delivery. But that’s probably not a requirement for inshore maritime deliveries; realistically, most ships will likely be within range of remote operators on shore anyway. And there may come a day when drones are a standard part of a ship’s equipment, with one or more crew members trained to fly the drone from ship to shore or even between ships that cross paths far out to sea.

Turning it into a Business

Is there a market for this? Probably, and at least one company is willing to give inshore ship servicing a try. Wilhelmsen Ships Services recently announced plans for drone-based delivery to ships at sea. With operations at 2200 ports in 125 countries, WSS is probably poised to take advantage of a large existing client base willing to save a few bucks servicing their fleets. They plan to start a trial at a major port sometime in 2017.

It’ll be interesting to watch where WSS and its eventual successors take maritime drone technology. There are plenty of ships at sea, and plenty of fixed offshore oil and gas platforms to service. Drones could be a game changer for this market, and might be yet another way to automate the freight.

Filed under: drone hacks, Hackaday Columns, Interest


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