Robotic Hull Cleaning

“As harmless as barnacles on hulls might seem to landlubbers, these crustaceans generate ‘increased drag as these ships move from port to port across the world’s oceans,’ explained Office of Naval Research program officer Steve McElvany.

Barnacles can reduce vessel speed by up to 10 percent, thus requiring ships to raise fuel consumption by as much as 40 percent to counter the added drag. Altogether, gunk stuck on hulls of navy ships translate into roughly $500 million annually in extra maintenance and fuel costs to keep vessels clean.”

The field of robotic hull cleaning is rapidly growing, with several new technology companies, including Armach Robotics, based in Massachusetts, entering the market to make shipping more efficient and environmentally friendly. Armach Robotics, a spinoff of marine software company Greensea Systems, has expanded its reach using remote operations.

Armach’s robotic hull cleaner can be deployed by just two people in a harbor, without the need for cranes, and it can be operated from the company’s headquarters. In December, the company achieved a significant milestone when its staff in Plymouth successfully controlled a hull service robot located 600 miles away in Norfolk. Using a 4G modem for connectivity, they established a communication connection and sent commands to start up the robot and drive it to a nearby ship. The robotic hull cleaner’s on-hull navigation system then took over, performing a brief test cleaning and demonstrating its ability to autonomously navigate around obstacles.

“We reached one more milestone on our technology roadmap when we flew the vehicle from Plymouth and landed it on the BB64, and it was a euphoric experience,” said John Dunn, Armach’s VP of Operations and the pilot on the test.

Future developments for Armach Robotics include implementing support systems that can automatically launch and recover the robot from either a pier or the ship itself. The objective is to develop a fully robotic solution that can provide frequent and rapid cleaning as a service, removing microfouling early on before it grows enough to affect the ship’s efficiency.

“We’ll carry out the cleaning remotely, and customers will reap the benefits of saving up to 10 percent in fuel, reducing carbon emissions by up to 10 percent, and mitigating the spread of invasive species,” said Alex Kern, Armach’s Director of Sales and Marketing.

In the long run, Armach envisions that robotic hull cleaning could even enable ships to switch to biocide-free bottom coatings, according to Karl Lander, Armach’s Regulatory Compliance and Outreach Director. Nontoxic coatings would be better for the environment, and frequent cleaning with robotic hull cleaners could help keep fouling at bay without the need for toxic copper compounds

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