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Drones and shipping – a dangerous mix

Kevin Doherty from Nexus Consulting has advice for shipowners thinking of using drones at sea.

I read with interest the news and comments yesterday on Splash about a ship being detained for using a drone while transiting the Suez Canal.

I recall how a lot of security companies pitched the idea of using drones against the pirates.

Unfortunately, these companies clearly didn’t do their homework, as security must remain inside the ship to fall under ‘defence’.

In the US, the Department of Defense use of force policy clearly states nothing, including the tip of a rifle, can go past the rail-line of a ship.

Launching a drone from a ship has these issues:

  1. If the drone hits another ship, it could technically fall under an act of piracy.
  2. Drones use RF (radio frequency) to communicate, the ship is emitting far stronger RF signals than the drone controller’s device, and most likely the drone will just fly away, uncontrolled. When that drone crashes into the ocean, it’s an environmental issue and could be a huge fine for the ship (illegally dumping plastic into the ocean).
  3. This may be most important, they are illegal in most countries, either outright or at least requiring a licence.

I know no US company has even been approved to use drones on a ship or at sea, and I wager most other countries haven’t as well.

Best advice for shipowners is do not allow drones on their ship, either in the form of crew personal effects, ships stores, or security equipment unless the ship is cleared for diplomatic cargo and the drone is required by the military chartering the ship.

Yesterday’s news story on the detained ship garnered a strong reaction online. One reader, Captain Ajith Nair, commented on our site: “I don’t know how much the Master thought this through before launching the drone. It is well known that there are multiple military installations along the course of Suez Canal. He should have had the foresight that the Suez Canal Authority would take offence to the use of Egyptian air space without prior permission. In a place where everybody calls himself senior chief pilot and tries to throw their weight around, a little common sense would have saved a lot of grief.”

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