Sniffer drones coming to world’s busiest ports

sniffer drones

By Cate Hull
As part of a worldwide effort to enforce environmental regulations, governments are now turning to so-called sniffer drones to police the skies near ports, according to a report on

In January, new International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulations requiring cleaner fuels go into effect and governments are turning to drones to help them sniff out violators.

The new regulations are designed to lower shipping’s emissions of sulfur oxides, pollutants blamed for acid rain and aggravating human health conditions like asthma.

In the Netherlands, home to Europe’s largest port, preparations are underway to use a large, unmanned flying vehicle capable of traveling well over 10 miles from the shore to detect emissions from ships. The local enforcement authority calls it a ‘super drone.’

In Hong Kong, where rule breakers face large fines and up to six months in prison, similar – albeit smaller – machines are currently being tested for the same purpose. Maritime authorities in Denmark and Norway have also already started using the technology.

Authorities can use drones to effectively filter through the tens of thousands of vessels coming in and out of their ports. Knowing in advance if a ship is burning non-compliant fuel means they can target the right carrier for a manual inspection.

In Hong Kong and Shenzhen – where hundreds of ships are currently randomly selected for spot-checks – authorities are working with academics on using drones, said Professor Zhi Ning from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The unmanned vehicles will fly into plumes of smoke created by vessels, collecting real-time data that is then used to calculate how much sulfur is in the ship’s fuel. The university is field-testing its technology this month and will send staff on boat trips around Hong Kong.

“It takes only two to three minutes for us to finish one scanning of the plume of one ship,” said Ning. “We hope to have this joint effort between Hong Kong and Shenzhen for the Greater Bay area. In the end, the air pollution doesn’t have any boundaries – it just flows around.”

In the Netherlands, where the marine fuel sulfur limit is already set at 0.1%, there are plans for unmanned aircraft to start being used for emissions testing in the second half of this year.

The local enforcement authority – the Inspectie Leefomgeving en Transport (ILT) – is also awaiting approval to start using a so-called super drone capable of analyzing the emissions of ships that are much further out to sea, with testing starting by the beginning of next year when the IMO rules kick in. That’s in addition to Rotterdam’s “sniffer pole,” a fixed installation at the port’s entrance that tests the fumes of all passing vessels.

Drones are cost-effective and will make enforcement much more efficient, said Marco Buitelaar, program manager for clean vessels at the ILT.

The shipping industry is likely to comply with IMO emission regulations, especially major companies that wouldn’t be able to escape the risk to their reputations from cheating, according to Richard Chatterton, an analyst with Bloomberg NEF in Singapore.

Cate Hull is the CEO of FreightExchange, a freight and logistics company based in Sydney.