Drones on the surface will inspect our ports

​The autonomous watercraft Seacat will monitor and inspect ports and marine facilities, both above and below water surface. The prototype is now refined in collaboration between Chalmers and the University of Gothenburg, among others.
Ports and marine facilities, such as platforms for work and housing, wind power plants and piers, may in the future be inspected by the Seacat drone. The autonomous system with remote control has been developed by Chalmers' infrastructure Revere, where researcher Ola Benderius works.

“We work with Seacat in the same way as we have done for many years with cars and trucks. We plan to be able to add more new functions to the vehicle via the internet, and completely avoid manual steps”, he says.

Need for inspections below surface​

Today, infrastructure of national interest, such as large ports, outlets at nuclear power plants or large cables for communication, must be inspected at least every six years in accordance with requirements from the Swedish Transport Administration. Inspections must be made at so-called “hand close distance”. This means, for example, that quay sides and their foundations must be visually and manually inspected, square meter by square meter.

With flying drones, it is relatively easy to inspect the land side and, to some extent, the side of the quay side. But the process is all the more difficult near water surface, and on parts standing on the seabed. Researchers in the Seacat project now want to facilitate inspections by developing a drone with sensors both above and below surface. In addition, the drone needs to be easy to maneuver and adapted for the port operator.

“How deep Seacat can inspect will probably depend on which multi-beam you use. But I think that Seacat above all has its strength where the water is too shallow, or the space is too narrow for inspections using ships. When the water is shallow, inspections also takes longer, as sweeps with the multi-beams are not so wide”, says Ola Benderius.

More regular inspections of quay sides will increase the possibility of quickly detecting wear, objects on the seabed and other deviations. The researchers believe that even older data can be valuable in order to analyze and trace damage back in time.

Growing need for drones at sea

Our transition to a sustainable society entails more use of marine resources. Fish and mussel farms, marine energy plants and other types of anchored infrastructure will increase in number. This in turn will increase the need for regular inspections, all year round.

Robert Rylander is a technical expert at RISE, with a background in advanced marine observations. He is also part of heading development of the Seacat craft.

“A maritime system that operates in a Nordic climate must be able to function all year round, and even with some ice formation. There is no supplier of autonomous surface drones with this capacity on the market today.”

And the project has already come a long way. The project group showed that Seacat was able to handle autonomous maneuvering during a demonstration back in 2019.

“To be able to carry out inspections and also certain measures from a safe place ashore, during most days of the year, is of great benefit to society. It is an important step for a cost-effective management of various types of marine facilities”, says Torsten Linders, initiator and coordinator at the Swedish Center for Ocean Observing Technology (SCOOT), which is led by the University of Gothenburg.

Developing new collaborations

In December, the Seacat project received funding from Vinnova to continue development of the drone. In the new phase, more parties have joined the project, including the Port of Gothenburg and Floatel International. Torsten Linders is satisfied:

“This is exactly what SCOOT does. We connect stakeholders from academia and research institutes with industry, to accelerate the development of marine data collection. By taking advantage of each other’s resources, we reach much further than we would individually”, he says.

From Chalmers’ side, work is now continuing on automated launch of functions and updates in software, as well as automated flow of data, from sensors above and below water to a cloud based solution.

“We also work towards productification and so-called digital twins. We will specify the whole system in a, what I call, cyberphysical model. The model then forms the basis for the initial generation of software, future software changes, and the digital twin who resides in a simulated environment”, says Ola Benderius.


Text: Maria Holmkvist, University of Gothenburg, and Mia Malmstedt, Chalmers

Photo: Maria Holmkvist

Page manager Published: Mon 07 Feb 2022.