Might maritime drones help sailors stuck at sea?

The coronavirus crisis has put thousands of crews under quarantine and complicated supply-at-sea, but could drones help with this situation?

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Current conditions have been hard on sailors and the shipping industry, as cautious governments seek to restrict the movement of the COVID-19 virus by keeping ship crews under quarantine conditions. This has led to hundreds of thousands being stranded and unable to disembark and complications across the industry.

However, the last 10 years have seen drones become cheaper and easier to use, so might they offer relief and a long-term answer?

We spoke to one company, F-drones, based in Singapore, who are hoping that their drones will be able to resupply ships at see completely autonomously in the near future.

What is the need for your solution?
The maritime industry has, for a long time, been relying primarily on boats to send items to vessels anchored at ports. This is a slow, expensive and carbon-intensive channel. F-drones’ solutions have the potential to reduce 80% of the costs, time and CO2 emissions.

What stage are you at currently?
In April 2020, we became the first company in Singapore to obtain an authorisation from the aviation authorities to conduct Beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) drone deliveries using an off-the-shelf drone that can carry 5kg across 5km. Right now, we have completed building our proprietary drone, named Hyperlaunch, capable of delivering 5kg over 50km.  

What are some of the challenges in developing and deploying such a system?
Since this is a new technology, there are regulatory hurdles that one has to navigate. Today, we are the only company to have obtained a BVLOS permit for commercial drone deliveries in Singapore. With this experience, we are trying to expand to multiple new markets quickly. Secondly, the shipping industry is one that is rather conservative. We have been fortunate to work with a lot of forward-thinking companies who are keen to support us on our journey. This is also in part because they see the potential of our solution to revolutionize maritime logistics by being cheaper, faster and greener. On the technical front, building a drone that can land autonomously on moving/rocking vessels is challenging. It requires us to gather a lot of data to train our algorithms and we have been doing this for quite some time now. Soon, our proprietary drones would be able to land autonomously in compact spaces on-board the vessels safely. 

Have you seen a change in interest since the advent of COVID-19 and its effects on sailors globally? Are you accelerating plans? 
With or without COVID-19 situation, drones are going to bring efficiency for maritime last-mile logistics. Having said that, COVID-19 has provided a little additional push, given that drones can reduce human contact. 

When will the final drone variant become operational?
We have two products in our roadmap: (1) Our Hyperlaunch, capable of lifting 5kg loads over 50km, will be operational by early 2021. (2) Hyperlaunch Heavy, capable of lifting 100kg over 100km, the prototype will be completed by end of 2021. 

Do ships need any special equipment to land and operate the F-Drone?
For Hyperlaunch, we only require a 5m x 5m area for the drone to land, and most vessels have either a helipad or a winching area which are very suitable for the purpose. There is no need for any special equipment or pre-built infrastructure on-board vessels. This is one of the advantages of our solution, where our drones can navigate and land autonomously on vessels using the vision-based system. 

Can the system operate in rough seas or difficult conditions?
Our drones have a wind resistance of up to 50 kmph, which serves the purpose very well. 

How many operational drones do you expect to have within the next 12 months?
We hope to be operational in three to four ports beyond Singapore in the next 12 months.


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