Robots equipped with cameras and magnetic wheels have been produced by European researchers which can look for damage on ships while they are in port and help shipping operators meet safety standards quicker and more easily.
Large cargo vessels can carry many different materials from oil to shipping containers of products and must comply with safety standards to reduce environmental risk and increase safety while transporting these goods. These standards, which are becoming increasingly stringent, are enforced by surveyors who inspect vessels for cracks and corrosion when they are in port. The surveyors have to climb inside the massive cargo areas and on scaffolding constructed around ships.
A pan-European project, Minoas (Marine INspection rObotic Assistant System), has developed robots equipped withcameras and magnetic wheels able to scale walls, both inside and out, to look for damage on large ships quickly and accurately. The robots have the potential to make ships safer while extending their life at sea, in addition to cutting costs, improving workplace safety for inspectors, and lowering the environmental risks associated with unsound cargo ships.
Alessandro Grasso of the Italian classification society RINA, which certifies the safety and environmental worthiness of ships and coordinated the project said: “MINOAS can help ship surveyors by giving them more tools to conduct more thorough inspections. As far as we know, this was the only project of its kind in the world.”
The robots are equipped with robotic arms, cameras and magnetic wheels and roll up and down the walls of ships, looking for defects on the massive steel plates and measuring their thickness with ultrasound. Controlled from a central station using virtual reality techniques, the robots crawl throughout the ship – taking pictures, videos and measurements without the need for human inspectors to go inside of the hold or climb up scaffolding.
Among the four models of MINOAS robots is the “Magnet Crawler”, a two-wheeled, battery-powered device with a miniature video camera, two motors and a handle-shaped elastic tail. Weighing less than a kilogram, it can climb walls at a half-metre per second and transmits videos and images to human inspectors carrying hand-held receivers.
The robots can also conduct inspections in pairs – the first using a brush to clear away rust and dirt so that the second robot can use its ultrasonic device to measure the thickness of the wall. Advanced locomotion abilities enable them to operate in every compartment of ships.
The robots offer other advantages over human inspectors. Grasso said: “With the robots, we expect to obtain more data – quicker. By having more detailed data, we can make more accurate comparisons with previous inspections, to see if there have been any changes that need to be addressed.”
Vitally, by monitoring cracks, weak spots and other types of deterioration over time, ship owners will better be able to estimate future damage and the costs to repair it, he said.
Grasso added that the MINOAS project has received great interest when shown at exhibitions and the team expects some of the robots to be commercialised in the future.