Sniffer drones to patrol world’s busiest ports

Bloomberg May 21 | Updated on May 21, 2019

In Hong Kong, smaller machines are currently being tested to detect emissions from ships   -  istockphoto

Teams of drones are about to start policing the skies of some of the world’s busiest shipping ports. Their target? Environmental rule-breakers.

It might sound — and look — like something out of a Marvel Avengers movie, but for many ports around the world, these so-called sniffer drones are the best way to enforce new regulations aimed at cutting the air pollution caused by ships.

Super Sniffers

Regulators are bracing for rules that are meant to lower shipping’s emissions of sulfur oxides, pollutants blamed for acid rain. Because the regulations, which start January 1, will require most of the world’s ships to burn more expensive fuels, there’s been speculation some owners may try to cheat to drive down what is their single biggest cost. And that’s where the drones come in.

In the Netherlands, home to Europe’s largest port, preparations are underway to use a large, unmanned flying vehicle capable of travelling well over 10 miles from the shore to detect emissions from ships. The local enforcement authority calls it a super drone.

In Hong Kong, where rule breakers face large fines and up to six months in prison, similar — albeit smaller — machines are currently being tested for the same purpose. Maritime authorities in Denmark and Norway have also already started using the technology.

Authorities can use drones to effectively filter through the tens of thousands of vessels coming in and out of their ports. Knowing in advance if a ship is burning non-compliant fuel means they can target the right carrier for a manual inspection. In Hong Kong and Shenzhen authorities are working with academics on using drones, said Professor Zhi Ning from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.The unmanned vehicles will fly into plumes of smoke created by vessels, collecting real-time data that is then used to calculate how much sulfur is in the ships fuel. The university is field-testing its technology this month and will send staff on boat trips around Hong Kong, whose name means Fragrant Harbor.

Quick work

“It takes only two to three minutes for us to finish one scanning of the plume of one ship,” said Ning. “We hope to have this joint effort between Hong Kong and Shenzhen for the Greater Bay area. In the end, the air pollution doesnt have any boundaries — it just flows around.”

The local enforcement authority — the Inspectie Leefomgeving en Transport known as ILT — is also awaiting approval to start using a so-called super drone capable of analysing the emissions of ships that are much further out to sea, with testing starting by the beginning of next year when the IMO rules kick in.

Published on May 21, 2019

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