It has become apparent that the use of drone technology to identify faults in the shipping industry is on the rise. This innovative method allows the Port to obtain photographs of the facilities taken underwater, providing many advantages for facility maintenance. 

Sohar Port carries out its inspections using this cutting-edge technology throughout its processes, ensuring the safety of staff and reliability of its facilities. The port is the first in Oman to start incorporating this technology in its monitoring system.

Jasleen Mann speaks to senior asset management engineer at Sohar Port, Sufyan Al Mamari, about the use of underwater drones in the shipping industry and the advantages of the technology.

Jasleen Mann (JM): What is the reason behind the development of this technology?

Sufyan Al Mamari (SA): The use of technology has become essential to Sohar’s growth. We rely on precise measurements and cutting-edge equipment to assist tenants at the Freezone to become more efficient and vessels in the port load and unload goods to maintain effective supply chains. This extends to the maintenance of the port.

We use unmanned vehicles as an integral part of the port’s monitoring system. Underwater drones are used to perform tasks from essential inspections to the routine observation of the port and logistic infrastructure. The technology can detect and remedy defects where it is difficult or unsafe for humans to venture, ensuring structural integrity and durability. This is especially important when surveying berths and the breakwaters.

Like many emerging technologies that enhance communication with facilities, underwater drones can improve security, speed, effectiveness, and our overall response capacity. The impact has been so impressive in overcoming the traditional challenges ports face in infrastructure and asset inspection that they have become a primary tool for the development of smart infrastructures.

The drones can provide a wide variety of data from hard-to-reach places, allowing us to collect accurate data easily and safely, to inform decisions and address potential issues long before a fault occurs. It also allows us to plan maintenance more effectively and almost eliminate downtime and prolong the lifecycle of the port’s assets.

How does the underwater drone work?

An underwater drone works by controlling its buoyancy so that it doesn’t sink. The onboard motors push water and allow the drone to be controlled remotely or using its own built-in sensors. The drones are specifically designed to work in harsh, low light environments; the camera reliably provides excellent footage for operators.

Underwater drones are connected to the control panel where operators can view high-resolution screens to see exactly what the drone sees from its mounted camera. The handheld controller allows the operators to guide the drone to its target, control the camera by changing the angle, zooming, and rotating.

Moreover, operators can manage the tilt, elevation, and orientation of the vehicle to get a clear and accurate visual of the underwater environments in real-time. Pilots can record high-quality videos or switch to photo mode to snap photos for review by maintenance teams.

The underwater drone also has the capability to collect samples from the seabed and water samples by using two robotic arms that can easily be attached to the vehicle.

Due to the harsh marine environment, deterioration of the port infrastructure can be accelerated. This means it is necessary to inspect assets on a regular basis and the underwater drone has become one of our primary tools for this process.

We use drones to inspect different types of marine infrastructure including quay wall structures, jetties and breakwater without the risks associated with the job. These drones are durable enough for multiple deployments, which allows operators to perform inspections in enclosed spaces. For example, a port’s structural integrity demands periodic inspections.

What were the challenges in making this technology available?

Sohar became the first port in the Sultanate of Oman to adopt drone technology as part of the port’s monitoring system. Initially, we were dealing with a new technology, and that itself brings a specific set of challenges, but as the capabilities developed we were able to adopt the new versions and tailor the service to our needs.

Allowing real-time observation and analysis of the infrastructure, security, and environmental situation across the port, drones have proven efficient and capable of reaching areas humans cannot while offering a new perspective of the entire complex.

Ultimately, the adoption of drone technology has been a huge success. There are multiple challenges when it comes to traditional methods of asset inspection. The most pressing is that of human safety, but it is also time-consuming – both in terms of planning and application. Reservations over the accuracy of collected data have also been overcome by using drones.

By learning from others and upgrading the technology when it becomes available, the use of underwater drones has seen vast improvements and increased capability and reach.

One of the main challenges using human diving operations is the time spent underwater. The drones have the capability to inspect depths that divers are often unable to reach and can spend more time collecting data. The quality control of the repair work is one of the challenges we still face, but we can use the drone to ensure work is done according to the specification required.

Is it cost-effective to produce this type of drone?

The use of underwater drones has proven to be a cost-effective way to ensure the durability of the structure. Carrying out underwater asset inspection in the traditional manner increases the cost of maintenance by forcing the shutdown of the asset, or even the entire site, periods of outage, time-consuming risk assessments and health, safety, security and environment (HSSE) implementation, and increased insurance costs.

Removing the necessity of manual inspection reduces insurance costs for both inspectors and workers. It also removes the need for costly HSSE procedures.

However, one of the major advantages of the highly-reduced costs of using underwater drones for asset inspection is that it provides an incentive to take proactive action with preventative inspections, rather than only conducting inspections when required by regulations or when absolutely necessary due to the potential cost to business and the financial implications.

Do you expect to see widespread use of underwater drones?

The use of AI and drone technology can only increase. The cost savings, the man-hour savings and operational benefits of advancing technology has the potential to transform businesses in every sector. We have seen the widespread adoption of drone technology already, from product and emergency services delivery to surveillance – both above ground and underwater.

The use of underwater drones in the port industry has already shown the value of using unmanned vehicles to enhance underwater inspections and reduce the need to employ a diver for a potentially dangerous task. Due to the necessity to perform frequent inspections for port and marine structures, we must have a simple, effective and more efficient method to perform these actions and underwater drones have been the ideal solution. 

Sohar is committed to being a leader in the expansion and modernisation of Oman’s logistics sector as part of Vision 2040. By becoming future-ready, Sohar has been able to attract new clients, increase cargo traffic, and expand Oman’s global trade capacity, which includes welcoming the world’s largest container vessels, in support of the national economic priorities.