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Drones to Monitor Ship Emissions in Baltic for Sulfur Content

drones monitor for sulfur emissions in the Baltic
EMSA provides remote systems (drones) for monitoring programs in the EU (EMSA file photo)

Published Apr 15, 2022 7:37 PM by The Maritime Executive

A large-scale emissions monitoring campaign using remotely piloted aircraft is launching this month in the Baltic specifically looking for ships failing to comply with the sulfur content restrictions in the region. The project conducted by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) with the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency, is a continuation of similar projects EMSA has undertaken in the area as well as the use of drones for other monitoring efforts in Europe.

During the next three months, a specially equipped drone will measure the sulfur content in the exhaust plumes of ships transiting the Baltic Sea. The “sniffer” will be able to detect violations of the applicable limits. At the same time, image data will also be collected for hydrographic surveying purposes.

The remotely piloted aircraft will take off from the German Armed Forces' Staberhuk site on the east coast of Fehmarn and fly over selected ships operating in the Fehmarn Belt and the Kadetrinne/Kadetrenden to measure the sulfur content of their exhaust plumes using specific sensors. It will be possible to infer from the data the sulfur content of the ship’s fuel, which by regulations can not exceed a level of 0.10 percent in the Baltic Sea Emission Control Area (SECA).

The measurement results are made available in real-time to the authorities in European ports via the Port State Control information system operated by EMSA. According to the EU’s agency for maritime interest, ships can be specifically selected for inspection at their next port of call, and samples of the fuel can be taken. If violations of the strict sulfur limits can be proven, those responsible face heavy penalties.

EMSA offers the Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) services free of charge to EU countries. They have been developed to assist in maritime surveillance operations and ship emission monitoring and can operate anywhere along the European Union coast. RPAS services can provide support to traditional coast guard functions, including search and rescue and pollution prevention and response.

Danish and French authorities operated similar emission monitoring programs with EMSA in 2020 and last year the agency implemented a monitoring program in the Baltic at the request of the Environmental Protection Department of Lithuania’s Ministry of the Environment. Spanish authorities in 2021 conjunction with EMSA deployed drones over the busy shipping lanes at the Strait of Gibraltar to monitor the level of sulfur oxides being released by ships. They identified nearly 10 percent of the ships transiting the Strait of Gibraltar for further inspection for possible breaches in the current sulfur regulations.

In addition to ship exhaust gas measurements, this year the drone program will acquire multispectral aerial imagery. The drone survey campaign will investigate whether aerial imagery can provide complementary information for the German hydrographic surveying service. For shallow waters, bathymetric values can be extracted from images. The imagery will also allow for three-dimensional mapping of the shore zone. 

The drone flights are operated by the Norwegian company Nordic Unmanned on behalf of EMSA. The sensor technology and analysis capabilities for the emission measurements is supplied by the Danish company Explicit ApS.