Advanced robotics are already influencing maritime operations. From the green and eco-friendly benefits offered by regular hull cleanings, to the safer waters achieved through anti-piracy measures, the applications are vast.

How Robots Are Changing the Maritime Industry
How Robots Are Changing the Maritime Industry

Scott Huntington | Off The Throttle

We've come a long way from the machines that powered the industrial revolution. Much of the industrial technology at the forefront of the revolution has advanced considerably. We’ve gone from assembly-line equipment and repetitive operators to full-on autonomous robots. It’s not just manufacturing that’s experiencing the rise of advanced machinery either. Modern robotics is sweeping across nearly every sector, including the maritime world. 

SEA-KIT’s Maxlimer vessel is the perfect example of how technology is making waves, literally. It’s a fully robotic ship that does not need a human support crew. It can travel autonomously, complete with several small drone boats and submarines — which it can send out to complete tasks and retrieve. The Maxlimer is something to behold, and it shows that the possibilities are limitless. More importantly, it reveals that the technology has breached the sector's boundaries, and many sea-organizations are starting to take notice.


Robotics in the Maritime Industry

Robots are used for many things in the maritime industry, from cleanup and maintenance to full-on driverless craft — such as the Maxlimer.

Of particular importance is their use during hazardous or potentially dangerous situations. By replacing human laborers with robotics, the operations instantly become safer and often more streamlined. The U.S. Maritime Administration or MARAD, for example, has partnered with SEA-KIT to create robotic oil-cleanup vessels. The job is incredibly dangerous for human workers, who see regular exposure to hazardous chemicals, toxic fumes and a high risk for fire or explosions. Robotics would be a much safer option.

Marine maintenance is another major concern, something that is difficult to do even after vessels dock. A lot goes into keeping a boat healthy, from fuel and oil service to regular cleanings. A wide variety of parts and hardware must also be maintained or replaced to keep a vessel in top shape.

Here are just a few of the other maritime robot applications:


Hull Cleaning and Maintenance

It’s no secret that the hull or underside of sea vessels grow remarkably dirty. From barnacles and similar organisms to scratches and corrosion, nearly every ship needs regular cleaning to preserve its longevity.

It’s also a task that can be dangerous, difficult and tedious. Traditionally, divers will do the work when a vessel is docked or in port. However, new robotics may be able to do the job instead. The Robotic Hull Bio-Inspired Underwater Grooming Tool — called the Hull BUG — is a small robot that attaches to the underside of a vessel to clean the surface. It creates a negative pressure vortex in the space between its belly and the ship’s hull. Then, the robot moves along the surface of the boat using a combination of rotary brushes and water-jets to clean biofilm.

The idea is to carry out proactive grooming to maintain the efficiency of vessels. Sea Robotics, the company behind BUG, claims the 5% in fuel efficiency from regular cleanings will save about $15 billion per year in fuel costs for the shipping industry. It will also help reduce 1 billion tons of greenhouse gases that would be emitted by fleets worldwide.


Ship Inspections

Huge ships such as cargo or shipping vessels are difficult to inspect because of the surface area of the boat and its materials and colors. It can be challenging to detect cracks, corrosion and other serious complications, especially under the water where its dark and murky. It means that human inspectors have to invest considerable time pouring over every inch of a vessel.

What if it could all be taken care of by advanced robotics, however? Not just more accurately, but faster too?

A student team from ETH Zurich and ZHdK has joined up with Alstom Inspection Robotics to come up with a lightweight, versatile ship inspections robot. The prototype — called Ship Inspecting Robot or SIR — can pour over ballast tanks and hard to reach places on large vessels. It has four magnetic wheels with an overlapping wheelbase that allows it to move around the underbelly of a ship, even around I-beams and other obstacles. Remote operators control the robot with a wireless transmitter, which also sends a live video feed back to the command station. Four infrared sensors measure distance and detect various obstacles or edges.

SIR is not the only robot being developed for this purpose, however. MINOAS — the Marine Inspection Robotic Assistant System — and INCAAS — Inspection Capabilities for Enhanced Ship Safety — are two European-based projects of similar nature. Bluefin Robotics is working on an underwater robot called HUAV for the U.S. Navy. SmartBot is working on one too, called ROBOSHIP, which can inspect ballast tanks and perform maintenance underwater.


Anti-Piracy Measures

Both the Coast Guard and the Navy have a lot to contend with when it comes to piracy. Of course, it happens all over the world, not just near the United States' borders. Not every country can protect against major piracy, either. Robots could change that.

The Recon Scout Throwbot by ReconRobotics is a small, dumbbell-shaped robot that can infiltrate the main deck of a boat for stealth inspections. Magnetic wheels allow it to crawl up the side of a ship onto the deck and maneuver around. Cameras enable the operators to see what’s happening in real-time, even during the night, thanks to infrared sensors. It’s all controlled via a joystick-based command unit.

The U.S. Navy recently awarded ReconRobotics a contract to develop the Recon Scout XT micro-robot for them.


Maritime Is a Robotics Frontier

Advanced robotics are already influencing maritime operations, hopefully for the better. From the green and eco-friendly benefits offered by regular hull cleanings, to the safer waters achieved through anti-piracy measures, the applications are vast.

We’ve merely scratched the surface in regards to how robotics apply. The Maxlimer crewless vessel is an excellent example of the future we’re headed for, with many similar projects either considered or underway. It just goes to show that robots truly are changing the maritime sector.


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The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of RoboticsTomorrow

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