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Drones Find Possible Sulfur Violations on 10% of Ships Near Gibraltar

drones target ships for possible sulfur cap viloations near Gibraltar
EMSA's drones have been flying of the Strait since July (Nordic Unmanned photo)

Published Sep 21, 2021 5:57 PM by The Maritime Executive

Spanish authorities in conjunction with the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) are deploying drones over the busy shipping lanes at the Strait of Gibraltar to monitor the level of sulfur oxides being released by ships sailing in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. EMSA said the program, which is an expansion of similar efforts previously conducted in Northern Europe’s special designated emission control areas, has identified nearly 10 percent of the ships transiting the Strait of Gibraltar for further inspection for possible breaches in the current sulfur regulations.

EMSA’s remotely piloted aircraft (RPAS) has been carrying out daily two flights with an average of ten inspections per day in an operation under the direction of the Spanish Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda. Carried out by the Spanish General Directorate of Merchant Marine the program began flights in mid-July from a base in Tarifa and will continue until the end of October.  

According to a report from EMSA, current figures indicate that a total of 294 were monitored and 27 were found in possible breach of the 0.5 percent limits of sulfur content in their fuel. The measurements and records are automatically encoded in the information exchange system which triggers an alert in the EMSA THETIS-EU database. While EMSA notes that this does not confirm non-compliance directly, it does help port authorities target ships for inspection and proceed with the lab testing necessary for confirmation of the fuel composition. Violations can lead to eventual sanctions.

The project designed to test the effectiveness of drones in measuring pollutant emissions from ships was set up by the Spanish Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda (MITMA), in collaboration with the Algeciras Maritime Captaincy and the General Directorate of Merchant Marine. Using EMSA’s remotely piloted aircraft systems, the goal is to detect sulfur oxide emissions above levels indicating a possible breach of the International Convention on Maritime Pollution (MARPOL – Annex VI). 

The aircraft used is a CAMCOPTER S100 and it is under contract to EMSA from the consortium of Nordic Unmanned, Norce, and UMS Skeldar. It has several features making it a useful tool for the service, including the ability to take off and land vertically from an area less than 25 square meters, flight endurance of over six hours, and a range of more than 60 miles. To help detect the gases generated by fuel combustion and expelled through ship funnels, the aircraft is equipped with gas sensors and cameras that cover both optical and infrared spectral ranges.

The Spanish program is the first time the monitoring has been conducted beyond the Northern European emission control zones. Danish and French authorities worked with EMSA in the past on similar test programs to monitor emissions.  

Remotely Piloted Aircraft System services are offered free to all EU member states by EMSA. They have been developed to assist in maritime surveillance operations and ship emission monitoring and can operate in all seas surrounding the European Union. RPAS services can provide support to traditional coast guard functions, including search and rescue and pollution prevention and response. EMSA plans further expansion of its RPAS program in 2022.