About 71 percent of the surface of our planet is covered with water. Roughly 7% of the total area of the United States, 264,837 square miles, is covered with water in the form of bays, lakes, rivers and streams. So it comes as no surprise that uncrewed aerial systems, commonly referred to as drones are being used in public safety applications in marine environments as well. One such example happened only very recently.
On March 13 of this year, the 1,095-foot container ship Ever Forward operated by Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine Corp., was traveling from Baltimore to Norfolk, Virginia, when it missed a turn leaving Baltimore, then ran aground and became stuck in a mudbank in the shallows of the Chesapeake Bay near Pasadena, Maryland.
The US Coast Guard, along with the Maryland Department of the Environment, immediately began monitoring the situation and working on a plan to re-float the ship.
A salvage team as well as naval architects and divers were coming up with a plan, and multiple crews worked for weeks to release the ship from its muddy hold.
After two unsuccessful attempts to free the vessel, the Coast Guard decided on April 4th to unload 500 of the nearly 4,900 containers from the ship in an effort to get it floating once again.
Using combined efforts including dredging, marine construction, tugs, barges (deck barges, crane barges, and pull barges), a full moon and high spring tide finally helped provide the extra lift needed for the salvage vessels to finally pull and push the massive ship from the mud, across a dredged hole and back into the shipping channel.
Coordinating the massive effort to free the ship revealed concerns about the environmental impact (the danger of fuel leaking into the Chesapeake Bay) as well as the condition of the ship (the danger of the ship breaking apart) and the safety of everyone involved (the danger of containers dislodging and falling). Drones were considered to be the perfect solution to gather visual data to inspect the condition of the ship, provide pollution monitoring, and help oversee the unloading of the containers in order to maintain the security of everyone involved.
The coast Guard enlisted the help of Deputy Chief Mike Lighthiser from the nearby George Mason University (GMU) police, an agency experienced in the use of drones for public safety. For Deputy Chief Lighthiser, the use of drones in a marine environment was a first for GMU, and at first glance, how different it could be compared to operating on land. But as the operation revealed, there are some small, but important and impactful differences.
Drones taking off on land usually do leave the ground from a stationary platform, like the ground. Floating vessels however not only move with the general tide, they usually experience movement in all three dimensions due to wave activity, making taking off and landing a little more challenging. And as if that wasn’t enough, naval vessels and ships are some of the harshest environments for radio signals, as their large metal hulls reflect radio waves, causing multipath effects that interfere with the signals. Marine vessels use powerful radio signals themselves (usually for radar and communication), potentially overwhelming radio receivers.
Unfortunately, drones rely on radio frequency (RF) signals for navigation (GPS/GNNS), command & control as well as video feeds.
The team experienced these issues first hand during the mission, but were able to overcome those technical challenges and provide the valuable aerial view needed for the operation. The ability to share not only the video feed with all stakeholders, but also augment the data with map overlays showing the location of buoys and shipping lanes in relation to the stranded ship. According to Deputy Chief Lighthiser, the comprehensive situational awareness delivered through the use of drones and the DroneSense software made a difference, contributing to the success of the mission.
And this isn’t the only example for the successful use of drones in maritime operations.
On June 18, 2022, the 72-foot yacht Too Elusive caught on fire at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbor in New Hampshire. Three occupants and their dog had to abandon ship and were saved by a nearby lobster fisherman. Multiple agencies attempted to save the boat, however it ultimately sank.
Photo Credit: @USCGNortheast via Twitter
The US Coast Guard, having environmental concerns and worried about diesel fuel leaking into the waters, immediately started recovery efforts, enlisting the help of a number of agencies such as Maine DEP, NH DES etc.
The UAS team from the York County, Maine EMA, with the help of their drone program provided aerial overwatch during the operation about 2 miles offshore.
For more than 4 hours, the overhead view was shared with all stakeholders, who were able to easily monitor the video feed on their phones and tablets to ensure no diesel fuel was spilled during the operation, and the coastal environment remained protected.
According to Marc Brunelle, the DroneSense software was the star of the show, making it easy to share the video stream with multiple stakeholders and spot and mitigate the small leakage, which otherwise would not have been possible to see without the aerial perspectives. This expanded situational awareness was a critical tool in helping a successful recovery of the sunken boat.
The unique capabilities of drones make a difference in public safety operations – in this case helping protect the environment during maritime recovery operations. DroneSense software acts like a force multiplier, giving all stakeholders easy, secure and low latency access to the video feeds and augmented data.