Pilot project employs drones to deliver parts, supplies to ships


Aerial drones, booming in popularity among recreational users, are also attracting considerable attention for their potential to supply ships in remote areas. While ships carry spare parts for many situations, there can be times when a vessel doesn’t have a needed component and cannot be reached by conventional supply methods. Helicopters can be employed to drop off components, but they are restricted by range and can be expensive.

To alleviate the problem, Texas-based Wilhelmsen Ships Service (WSS) has launched a drone-based ship delivery initiative. Marius Johansen, vice president of business solutions and marketing for WSS Ships Agency, said the service will cut delivery times and save operators money. He predicted that drone use eventually may come down to $150 per supply drop, far less than the cost of hiring a launch.

Johansen told Professional Mariner that while drones currently are not being used to supply parts and goods to vessels at sea, at least on a commercial basis, units capable of carrying payloads of up to 1,700 pounds do exist. He also confirmed that WSS is evaluating drones for use both at sea and on inland waterways.

The potential for drones is evident for WSS, which operates from 2,200 ports in 125 countries. Its substantial client base may well see drones bringing cumulative cost savings over conventional delivery methods.

In a test of the technology in 2016, Maersk used a drone to deliver a box of cookies to a tanker off the coast of Kalundborg. The shipping giant touted the delivery as the first of its kind, but limitations were exposed when bad weather forced the delivery distance to be reduced to just 800 feet.

One of the biggest challenges facing WSS is that while drones “can fly for hours, even up to 48 hours in good conditions … these do not carry any payload except a camera for surveillance purposes,” Johansen said.

To overcome the hurdle, WSS is testing how drone technology can be used to optimize processes in other sectors of the maritime industry. Last October, the company conducted a drone-facilitated cargo hold inspection aboard a bulk carrier, as well as performing a draft-mark reading exercise. WSS is exploring how these test cases and others can be transformed into a commercial service.

WSS said the plan for supply drones includes a large-scale pilot project that began last year at one of the world’s busiest ports, the identity of which was not disclosed.

“We continue to actively explore how new technologies, such as drones, can enhance our agency business,” Johansen said. “We began practically testing their application in 2017 and will continue to evaluate their value to our business in a number of exciting test cases in 2018.”

In addition to payload capacity, the maritime use of drones faces challenges ranging from regulatory issues to hands-on deployment. For example, a drone delivery from one ship to another when both vessels are at sea would involve training crewmembers to fly the unit. But Johansen said it is inevitable that drones will play an important role in the maritime industry going forward, and valuable lessons are being learned.

“There are significant regulatory challenges, in particular in relation to flying in open airspace,” he said. “However, within a confined space such as cargo holds, you have the ability to do quite a lot without violating regulations or posing significant risk to safety.”

By Professional Mariner Staff