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Drones Ahoy: Remote Data for Ship Tank Inspections

This week I checked off a couple of items on my bucket list.


  1. Test an application for drones that I have not done before

  2. Fly my drone from a ship, and not just any ship, but my favorite ship that has brought me to and from my hometown for years.


My friend is enrolled at the Åland University of Applied Sciences to become a sea captain. She also works part-time onboard a few ships. She contacted me wondering if and how drones could potentially be an instrument in reducing risk to people when inspecting the tanks onboard large ships. I knew little about tanks onboard ships, but I learned that they come in various types and sizes and it is something that needs to be inspected annually. Statistically, these inspections are a leading cause of reported incidents when humans climb down these often confined spaces to inspect for rust, cracks, structural changes, and damage.


 My response was, "Of course, you can use drones to reduce the risk to human lives in confined spaces". After all, this is where drones excel in their purpose of capturing data remotely.

However, not just any drone will do. You would need a drone that is designed to operate successfully in a GPS-denied space with tight corners and dim lighting.

I do not hold such a drone in my personal drone inventory but agreed to anyways come onboard to demonstrate what a drone can accomplish to give a rough idea of how this technology works to an audience that has not seen a drone in action, indoors or outdoors, before.


I brought my DJI Mini 3 Pro, unsure if the tanks onboard this ship would accommodate a decent enough space to perform a small flight. To my pleasant surprise, the dry tank was big enough to fly around. This is the space that houses the critical structure that holds up the ship along with important cables to the overall infrastructure onboard. Some tanks are equipped with lights, however, the lights were not working so we had to use headlamps to lighten up the facades enough to get an "okay" image. I was shocked at how stable the aircraft performed with zero GPS coverage. It would intermittently descend in some areas due to interference, but seeing that the room itself is like one big magnetic field, that did not come as a surprise. Overall, the Mini held up far beyond my expectations. (Though I don't recommend using it for this purpose, it is best suited to fly outdoors)


We managed to collect some images and video of the dry tank space. Even though the data captured with a Mini 3 Pro is not ideal or relevant to what would truly assist in the main goal of gaining a better insight into the health status of these tanks, the imagery was not terrible. Sure, we can visually see if something does not look right. Ideally, a drone equipped to fly in this environment and collect data to transform into a digital twin where every inch of the space can be documented and compared from year to year would be the best solution.


I knew I did not carry the tools to provide a successful demonstration of what drones are truly capable of doing, however, the crew gained a positive and insightful experience in how a drone could be a huge benefit to them. They were amazed to hear that the technology does exist to do this type of job, and it is not as complicated or farfetched as they had imagined. I gained an exciting new experience for my own records while learning more about this type of application from the aspect of those who need the data. As an operator who has spent most of my time in the field, I typically only learn about applications after seeing the solution rather than the "issue" it is intended to solve. I prefer hearing about the issue and then applying the right solution, especially in this day and age where the industry has so many solutions to choose from.

 One thing that becomes abundantly clear from this experience is the need for a way to empower mainstream knowledge on how and where to begin looking for drone solutions. My friend and the crew onboard the ship did not have any prior knowledge of drones. They were not aware of the differences between drones designed to fly outdoors/indoors, the type of data that can be collected, the possibility of acquiring this equipment, the possibility of having an in-house team, and the ability to hire a DSP to bring in the knowledge and resources to get the job done. Why and how would they know any of this anyhow? More importantly, how would they know where to even begin finding answers to get to a solution that fits them? In this case, my friend was able to utilize her network to find those answers explained on a comprehendible level within an hour rather than spending hours, weeks, or months going down the online rabbit hole of drones.

Imagine the number of people having googled "drone solutions" just this week, and come Friday afternoon, they've put the idea on hold because it was too time-consuming to navigate and find a clear answer. Imagine all the BD and salespeople of DSPs, manufacturers, and various drone organizations looking for these people wanting their solutions. Few of these people manage to connect directly from good SEO practices. Many of these people connect only after months of research. It would be in everyone's best interest to streamline this process, right?


I am so glad that curiosity led my friend to explore the use of drone technology in improving aspects of her field. People will generally see the occasional news story about a drone doing something somewhere and quickly assume that it must be hard to fly a drone, it must be expensive, and it must take a long time to learn. From there, the thought of drones goes from a possible solution applicable to several aspects of daily life to an idea stuck on the shelf of fear of something new, fear of change, fear of investment.

If I can learn, so can you, and so can anyone open to finding solutions led by curiosity. Let's make it easier to be curious and empower people to find their way to drone solutions.

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