The Role of Drones in Maritime Shipping

Just as drones are increasingly impacting our everyday lives, the maritime industry is no exception. In fact, it is estimated that drones like so many other inventions will revolutionize the maritime shipping industry for many years to come.

Although drones were developed for government and military operations initially, over the next half a decade its growth is expected to exceed the defense industry, with an estimated value of $127 billion.

About 1.65million people are serving on international merchant ships today. With increasing oceanic data and innovations in autonomy, unmanned marine vehicles could become the standard for maritime shipping.

Maintenance & Repair

By replacing the need for human inspections, routine maintenance can be monitored remotely in real-time by surveyors, providing instant feedback to the vessel or offshore Superintendent. This, in turn, reduces costs, increases efficiency, significantly reducing the risk to human life during essential maintenance.

Inspecting ships is a vital part of the industry. Drones are able to help inspect ships above the surface and submersible (underwater) drones are designed to inspect hulls from below. With recent technology that is increasing the time-of-flight, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can travel many miles from port to detect emissions and identify offenders.

The Navigator is a drone that is designed to fly just as easily as it can swim. This is why the maritime applications of such a drone are practically endless. Since it was designed to operate underwater, by definition, it is capable of operating in intense, hazardous weather. This means it would be able to gather critical information regardless of storms or other weather conditions.

The need to gather critical information about structures such as piers, ships and docks can be complicated since many of them have components that are both in and out of the water, which is why using a single device to capture all this information will create incredible value.

Tank inspections, though common, are a serious risk to the crew members. Dangerous gases are the deadliest of the dangers on the ships. What happens is that a crew member will enter an enclosed space, and without knowing it, be exposed to a noxious gas that could prove deadly. Unfortunately, often they will become unconscious and suffocate within a short time. Drones, however, prevent all such danger.

With their hi-tech data onboard, they can easily and quickly provide a detailed and accurate analysis to assist the crew in determining the safety of the tank.

It is no exaggeration to claim that drones can take proactive measures to save lives within minutes of flight time!

Drones also may make the trip to the ship by the crew unnecessary, because video feedback from the inspection by the drone can be used to determine whether human inspection is even required. This completely removes any threat to human lives as well.

Three things that shipping companies want to avoid are: whales, icebergs and pirates. Since drones now have hi-tech cameras and video imagery from at least 20 miles away, they can easily spot such hazards, in advance, thus avoiding these very real dangers altogether.

Using drones for delivery has become more common in the maritime shipping industry. It is estimated that using drones, instead of boats, can reduce the costs by as much as 90% for vessel operations and ship managers.

Drones can also be flown into high and/or hazardous areas to check the structural integrity of vessels or loaded cargoes. Whereas this high-risk job was typically done by a crew member, it can now be done rapidly by a drone flying to the inspection point, and, with a high definition video feedback, send data to the control center, thus mitigating any risk.

Another task assigned to drones in the maritime shipping industry is resupplying ships while they are at sea. However drones have their limits due to flight-time and weight of supplies, and this is where cargo drones come in (I refer you to my blog entitled, “The Bright Future of the Cargo Drone Market”).

Even though UAS technology is improving the distance a drone can travel and its ability to handle heavy and large loads, not until there are greater strides in such technology will the maritime emphasis on the use of drones go beyond its primary focus, which is inspection and surveillance.

One of the later developments in drone technology is VIDAR (Visual Detection and Ranging), which is able to autonomously detect numerous large and small objects at sea in a variety of conditions. Such technology not only broadens the operational capacities of drones (e.g. search and rescue), but also makes them much more cost-effective.


Today, container ships transport over 90% of all goods in the world and more than $4 trillion worth annually, according to the World Shipping Council. However, it can take over a month for those goods to sail from Beijing to New York. By land, trucks move nearly as slowly.The global drone logistics and transportation market generated more than $24 million in revenue in 2018, a number that’s expected to grow to $1.6 billion by 2027, according to “The Insight Partners.” These drones could be the positive disruption needed in a global supply chain that’s been fairly stagnant since the 1950s. Watch the video to learn more.

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