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.

50 thoughts on “Automate The Freight: Maritime Drone Deliveries

    1. No.
      Ships have everything they need on board, and ones that don’t are leased in third world countries.

      There are very strict rules in most places as a harbor is treated as a national boarder crossing.
      This company is selling a service to jump over customs agents, and is many places those guys are armed.
      Good luck with that.

      1. depends on how you do it, if the packages are cleared by customs when loading it could work.

        if it solves enough issues without making new ones it will change laws, it isnt always as difficult as one might expect…

        1. Depends as well on the capacity of the drone too. Ships have small and very big parts… it is also fairly common that the crews are not as technically competent as one might imagine and the solution is to actually replace a computer instead of understanding the failure to repair it.

          Another thing that most people don’t know or realize is that any system that is vital will be redudant, especially on large seafaring vessels. Ok… perhaps not everything, but a drone ain’t gonna carry a propeller to be installed out near a harbor.

      2. “Ships have everything they need on board,”

        I was thinking that while that may be true today if this took off it wouldn’t have to be true in the future. More rarely needed items could be left behind leaving more room for cargo. They could be purchased “as needed” keeping money available for other investments.

        “There are very strict rules in most places as a harbor is treated as a national boarder crossing.”

        That would be the harder factor to deal with. I guess you would need a way to work with customs so that they can inspect what is being sent to/from the boat. Then you would need radar tracking drones coming and going from shore, tagging those that have been cleared so any which have not can be identified and dealt with.

        That’s probably too much to ask for. Then again.. if they want to keep people from smuggling things between shore to boat via drone I guess they need to develop the infrastructure to track such things anyway. If they don’t already have it.

        1. There are already systems in place for clearing items through customs for delivery offshore. As an example I when I was working as a film editor 20 years ago I was on the only member of the production team in London while the crew were all on a Norwegian oil fig in the North Sea. We had an account with a shipper who dealt with all that for us. When I had to send film/batteries/chocolate bars to the crew, I would fill in a customs form and take the items to the shipper, unsealed. They would take them to customs at Heathrow, who would inspect them and seal the package. The package would then be sent to wherever the oil company had it’s shore base to be helicoptered or shipped (by support vessel) out to the rig. Exposed negative film, etc. would come back the same way. I see no reason why the same or similar arrangements shouldn’t work using drones. I’ve shipped and received film negative from a crew working in the Borneo jungle!

          1. PS The US and other navies already have systems for using aircraft (COD) and helicopters to deliver to ships. Most large cargo ships now have helicopter platforms. My first thought about this story was that if Maersk things it is a good thing to try, then it is!

  1. “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.”

    Kind of like farmers. But I wonder if commercial quality 3D printers are used on board?

  2. Hope they don’t plan on using quadcopters; fixed-wing drones are significantly more efficient over longer distances. Unless they plan on only doing in-port deliveries, in which case the value proposition is much lower.

          1. Does not even have to be a full net. When the cargo is hanging below the drone on a long vertical string like seen in the video, then it can be caught with a single horizontal wire stretched above the ship deck.

      1. Why couldn’t they implement a dual control system and hand of control to a local operator when the drone is in range? When the payload has been offloaded, relaunch the drone and send it off with the home function

    1. I think this is intended as a “last mile” solution, so the ease of operation and control will far outweigh the range limitations. It would be much harder to automate a fixed wing deliver, including an accurate drop, not to mention simply landing and taking off again.

  3. I’m not convinced even delivery to a ship docked at an oil tanker is practical for rotorcraft. Meanwhile a foam flying wing could reusably crashlanded pretty easily. The stall speed is not all that fast.

    1. I’m not convinced this is viable for anything other than medical emergencies.
      If you have to wait for them to be within 1km of shore to be within electric drone range and there really aren’t any good gas options currently (I don’t expect any soon due to the quick throttle response required for small multirotors), this isn’t really any better than just sending out a tug or an actual Medevac for emergencies.
      Another example of trying to use your favorite hammer for everything.

      1. The reality of throttle response suggests to me that engine->fixed rotor will never be viable. Several interesting alternatives are more possible though:
        Engine -> alternator -> electric motor -> fixed pitch rotor
        Engine -> variable pitch rotors
        Engine -> fixed pitch rotor for majority of lift + alternator -> electric motor -> fixed pitch rotors for control

        Whether or not any of this makes it viable for the proposed application, no comment :-)

    2. Foam and some carbon fiber definitely! Crash landings then irrelevant. Dump it on the deck. Just reclaim the electronics and engine, trash the styro plane, but pristine landings are possible by hand or net.

      Did such a balsa and ply model for the University here mid ’80s when they came to the club asking help… I volunteered. They wanted it to fly 6 hours plus land and take off from water. Piloted by students following it in car at 55 mph making range over 300 miles. It succeeded. Was a canard with .6 cu in diesel engine. Believe stall speed was 17 mph from memory. Designed with Cadkey 3.51 in full 3D which I own a license of, and Lotus 123 for ALL, and I do mean ALL, the aerodynamics. Spreadsheet even calculated the cd of every part, allowing no need to add weight for CG adjustment. Still have the files on aging RW/CD. 9 mo of evenings dedicated work into it plus teaching multiple students to fly R/C. Upset the wife a lot… all female students.

      For this application would use the iridium sat phone system to update commands/destination/local baro in flight, an ardupilot to fly it, GPS on board. Hand launch or light catapult, net or crash landing on deck. Estimate 5 lb cargo no problem at all, and easy to scale that up.

      The project was to have a model that looked like Mama Trumpeter Swan to raise the chicks, then lead them to lead shot free feeding sites during the fall migration. They would always use those same sites in the following years themselves and teach their kids same. Lead shot was causing a lot of deaths.

      Would LOVE to see someone take some bits of this and apply it to life saving med delivery! But delivering somebody’s mail or slice birthday cake to ship at sea… well… good enough for me!

      1. Had to buy a station wagon to fit the 8+ foot wing.

        Smugglers are why I never built a second one. As a drone had the altimeter figured out by taught wire oscillator with evacuated can and one end a diaphram. The compass was a heavy pair of flux-gate magnetometers. Loran for navigation was bulky but possible and ADF to local radio and TV stations seemed a better bet. Artificial horizon by just adding the third axis to the compass, all power hungry. An SBC could handle the flight but power hungry too. Nope… 80’s wasn’t the time to try it as an autonomous drone for long distance. The door was open, but just a crack.

        Today… sure!

        The student project leader had me up to the preserve to work with the birds a bit. We both caught lyme disease, it nearly took her out. Mine kept flaring up for many years after.

  4. I thought the article was going to be about automated container ships. Should be possible, especially when matched with the ports in some locations that have nearly full automatic handling of container freight.

      1. Crews from poor countries are always going to be cheap, compared to the vast liability of damaging an oil tanker or huge container ship. And there’s some things you need a pair of arms for. Even NASA know that.

  5. Pure publicity agency bullshit. And some proof of concept (“Look, we can!”).

    Lets face the fact in the huge ships shipping business. A ship costs money if it ships around (fuel) or if it is near a coast (harbour costs, arrival and departure management, cargo movement) and of course fixed costs (loan costs for the ship, crew cost, cargo insurance (significant high), etc.). A ship almost costs nothing if it floats around out of power somewhere on the ocean (compared to the other two cases.)

    Crew numbers are around 24 hands. 1 electrician, 1 electrical engineer, 1 or 2 mechanical engineers, 1 or 2 mechanics (they use different names on ships, here presented by their training) others are nautical crew or deck hands. Some are just there to meet the safety regularities (documented by the Minimum Safe Manning Certificate) and allow 24 hour operation by law.

    Soooo. What shall a drone deliver to make use of on a ship? And why? And how?

    If the ship still can move it seems not to really need these parts so urgent. No business.

    What cargo weight to deliver? Broken turbo charger? Weight 2 tons (give or take 1 ton). No business. Smaller parts? What parts? Who shall repair these parts? Board hands repair the radar or AIS system? I doubt it. No business.

    If the ship has landed one would simply walk on board. No business.

    If the ship is on route, how to reach it? It moves around some coast, you have to run after it, find a place to departure the drone, etc etc. Lots of effort with logistics, why not simply mail the cargo to the next harbour? No business.

    If the ship can’t move and it is in reach of drones it is near a coast line and then they normally have other problems mostly only solvable by tugboats. No business.

    Security. Nowadays you can’s walk into the harbour. It is all a big flashing security theatre. Add custom controls, drug smuggling and all sorts of other crimes. I assume the last thing they need is another area of traffic that has to be monitored. No business.

    Anyone looked into the financial data of the shipping business? They are in perpetual crisis mode since mid summer 2008.

    I really don’t see anyone who wants or can effort this technic.

    1. mail, perishables and luxuries.

      considering what a general courier service can cost i can think of quite a few, especially considering that cargo capacities of a couple of hundred kg’s is possible with easily sourced parts.
      if you are bunkering you probably wont need it.

      1. You know boats have internet access and radios today.

        Maybe for luxury yachts whose owners want the novelty of some toy drone delivering goods.It would be easier with a small speed boat to haul anything critical or heavy. If it’s a mechanical problem they go back to the harbor and have some mechanics look at it.

        Medical,. no way. If the injury is so bad that someone on the boat needs emergency medical supplies, the captain will call either port authorities or the coast guard.

        For big ships as Rumburack says they don’t need it and it adds a very nasty and slick way smugglers could deposit illegal goods about cargo ships. Worse, once terrorist figure out drones (ISIS already has) it’s just a matter of time before they use ones that can handle 100lb loads and use them as flying buzz bombs blowing up oil and NG tankers left and right.

        This is why it won’t be allowed. Security will freak and so will the owners of ships that carry oil and NG. You think the insurance companies that insure these monsters would give the ports the go ahead to this threat? No way.

        1. I really want to see what happens if you fly a drone from Hamburg Övelgönne across the Elbe landing on a big container ship at Burchardkai…

          Armed force in 3…2…1…

  6. people here forget that even a common phantom has a flight durability far further than 1km, even with cargo, 10 is more realistic, it is the video link that is the first limiter in terms of distance, with common ranges around 1-1.5 km (possible ranges are much further), but for automated vehicles video links are pointless, as are the control links that usually have ranges of a couple of km’s.

    on top of that one could use a deposit system that would allow the UAV’s not to do a round trip, winged drones might still be a better fit but it isn’t entirely infeasible.

  7. You have to get fairly close to the target with another ship so it doesn’t save much in the way of money.
    For small items it would save the effort of having to send out a launch and climbing a ladder which may not be a desirable option during rough seas though the drone would have trouble fighting the wind in those conditions.
    Many large ships have a helipad so for medium sized items it may be less effort to just send a helicopter over.
    Something like a a replacement part for an engine would likely have to be transported over with by a helicopter lowering it onto the deck or another ship pulling up along side it and transferring it over with a crane.
    The engines in these are the size of a large house and even parts such as a new injector can weigh hundreds of pounds.

  8. Singapore Harbor – Ships!

    Lots of GREAT restaurants close by on-shore. Drone-Deliver FOOD (Yum – Affordable), BEER (Hic! – But TOO Expensive in Singapore because of the GOVERNMENT!)

    Nah, never mind – You’ll be SUED by Amazon etc. over FRIVOLOUS PATENTS.

    1. You know they have galleys on those ships. This isn’t the 1800’s like many of you imagine it is.

      Here’s why it won’t happen – security.

      Drones destroy access control. to the port and monitoring of what goes on a ship. Those drones can easily deliver Heroin, Meth, black market diamonds or for that matter a high explosive charge to disable a tanker or cargo ship.

      Perfect vehicle for criminals.

      1. And how do you plan to prevent the kind use of drones like you said? Mind you the technology is there already, why not try to find some use for it? There are cases where drones are used for delivering contraband into jails. Should we obliterate all drones? Should we penalize the ownership and manufacture of one?

      2. @Zerg,

        “You know they have galleys on those ships. This isn’t the 1800’s like many of you imagine it is.”

        My house has a “Galley” in it too, but I’m ordering a pizza for delivery tonight anyway!

        “Here’s why it won’t happen – security. Drones destroy access control. to the port and monitoring of what goes on a ship. Those drones can easily deliver Heroin, Meth, black market diamonds or for that matter a high explosive charge to disable a tanker or cargo ship. Perfect vehicle for criminals.”

        That’s a good point. I guess my take-away order might get cold queuing up for a Customs inspection :-(

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