Ports testing use of drones to sniff out polluting ships

Many ports around the world are looking at using "sniffer drones" to enforce new rules aimed at cutting air pollution caused by ships. PHOTO: SKELDAR
Many ports around the world are looking at using "sniffer drones" to enforce new rules aimed at cutting air pollution caused by ships. PHOTO: SKELDAR

LONDON • 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.

Regulators are bracing themselves for rules that are meant to lower shipping's emissions of sulphur oxides, pollutants blamed for acid rain and aggravating human health conditions like asthma.

Because the regulations, which start on Jan 1, will require most of the world's ships to burn more expensive fuels, there has been speculation that some owners may try to cheat to drive down what is their single biggest cost. And that is where the drones come in.

In the Netherlands, home to Europe's largest port, preparations are on to use a large, unmanned flying vehicle capable of travelling over 16km from the shore to detect emissions from ships. The 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 being tested for the same purpose. The maritime authorities in Denmark and Norway have also already started using the technology.

Officials 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.

 
 

The Hong Kong and Shenzhen authorities are working with academics on using drones, said Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's Professor Zhi Ning.

The unmanned vehicles will fly into plumes of smoke created by vessels, collecting real-time data that is then used to calculate how much sulphur is in the ship's fuel. "It takes only two to three minutes for us to finish one scanning of the plume of one ship," said Prof Ning. "We hope to have this joint effort... for the Greater Bay area. In the end, the air pollution doesn't have any boundaries - it just flows around."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2019, with the headline 'Ports testing use of drones to sniff out polluting ships'. Print Edition | Subscribe