When a luxury cruise ship sails into a port, the last thing excited passengers are thinking of is the protective coating on the ship’s hull. Yet, the protective coating is critical as the final line of defense against marine organisms that intend to permanently cling onto the cruise liner’s hull.

That is why many commercial marine companies rely on performance coatings from AkzoNobel to prevent fouling build up, such as mussels, barnacles, and slime which attach to ship hulls. When fouling builds up, it causes drag on the ship hull, which leads to decreased fuel efficiency.

About AkzoNobel

AkzoNobel, a Dutch multinational company that creates paints and coatings for industry and consumers, supplies different protective coatings to the marine industry. AkzoNobel partners with its maritime customers to monitor the performance of the coatings. AkzoNobel is not simply in the business of selling paints and coatings. Rather, the company sells the promise of performance, or in other words, a service to their customers.

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The business decision to sell performance requires AkzoNobel to monitor the effectiveness of its coatings.

“If a marine company is reporting that fuel efficiency is decreasing, the first person who gets the call is the coatings company,” said Adam Bell, Team Manager of Performance Diagnostics, Technology Implementation and Delivery team at AkzoNobel.

Adam explained that if a vessel is experiencing diminished performance, AkzoNobel needs to know whether the reduced fuel efficiency is due to the coating failing or whether there is another factor in play.

“It’s a very challenging industry because we’re competing with nature,” Adam said. “A lot of damage can happen to the hull. If damage exists, the coating doesn’t have a chance.”

Sometimes a vessel will hit a sandbar which causes damage to the coatings. Other times the ship needs service and maintenance. Like a car, ships also suffer from wear and tear, which can diminish their fuel efficiency.

To determine whether the coating that AkzoNobel sold to its customer is performing as expected, Adam and his team monitor the coating by conducting visual inspections. It is significantly less costly and faster to perform such inspections than to have the vessel go to the dry dock.

AkzoNobel’s use case for micro ROVs

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Traditionally, AkzoNobel worked with diving companies that send human divers to perform ship hull inspections. However, relying on human divers for inspections posed challenges in the past, including:

  • Concerns for the divers’ safety

  • The time required to mobilize a team of divers

  • The permitting paperwork required by the port authority   

  • Divers are only allowed in the water at 1-knot or below currents

Due to these constraints, Adam and his team began researching whether there were ways to improve the knowledge of their coatings.

Adam and his team landed on two methods:

  1. Visual inspections

  2. Data science, including using AI and predictive analytics

Optimizing visual inspections is how Adam started researching ROVs for ship hull inspections. His research led him to micro ROVs that require only one person to deploy and can be used to collect data and footage in less than an hour.

AkzoNobel acquired multiple SeaDrone Inspector 3 ROVs to perform the ship hull inspections.

Since Adam and his team are tasked with rapid deployment inspections, it was essential for them to get up and running immediately using the ROVs. Adam and his team devised a plan for how they would get results quickly.

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How to succeed by starting small

How did Adam and his team achieve early success?

By starting small.

The AkzoNobel team began by inspecting a test raft. The test raft was located in a marina that is very close to the UK research center where Adam is based. It was like a buoy with panels attached to it.

“We picked this marina because it has very low tidal flow,” Adam said. This environment allowed Adam and his team to “look at small structures in benign water” and gain confidence with the ROV controls.

From the early success inspecting the test raft, Adam and his team moved on to the next larger project, where they worked with a fisherman to inspect his small fishing vessel.

Local fisherman often agree to have test coatings applied to their fishing boats. Adam likes to partner with these fishermen to test AkzoNobel’s next-in-line products coming out of research and development (R&D).

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Instead of taking the vessel out of the water to inspect the anti-fouling coating, Adam and his team told the fisherman to leave his boat in the port. They used the ROV to observe how the patches were performing.  

“The coatings were great,” Adam said. “We did a few small vessels in the same way.”

Once confident with operating the ROVs, the next bigger trial was in the Shetland Islands, on a 160-meter passenger ferry. Once Adam and his team succeeded with this large vessel, they were confident about taking the ROVs worldwide for inspections.  

Rapid deployment inspections

In addition to testing the ROV controls, Adam also helps train the Technical Service Representatives (TSRs) who will be performing the inspections going forward. TSRs are the front-line customer service representatives who spend a lot of time at the ports working with AkzoNobel customers.

Adam provides guidance to the TSRs about how they can perform their inspections safely and reliably in under an hour.

“I talk about operating in straight lines. Instead of sending the ROV down the vessel, underneath and up the other side, I tell them to always keep the ROV within view,” Adam said. “Don’t lose sight of the ROV, or else you’re in trouble.”

That means it is important to plan what inspection points the ROV needs to capture. Adam emphasizes that it is important to ask, “what is the simplest way to get the inspection views?”.

For example, if the TSR needs to send the drone 100 meters up the vessel, it would be smarter to walk that distance instead of sending the ROV up that same distance. It’s important to minimize the tether that is released to avoid entanglements.

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Another point that Adam emphasizes is understanding the water flow during the inspection. For example, he mentions that TSRs should understand where the tide is going and whether there will be a change in the tide during the inspection, as well as how the tidal flow can affect the ROV’s movement.  

“It’s a lot safer being on the surface than in the water,” Adam said. “But the port is still a dangerous place to be.” That is why anybody operating the ROV needs to be diligent and aware at all times.

Importance of understanding data collection

Adam’s final tip for success is to know how to collect data. Adam’s team is able to complete a hull inspection within an hour because they are familiar with the ROV controls and understand how many points along the ship’s hull are required for an inspection.

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“If you look to inspect every square meter, that will take an unreasonable amount of time,” Adam said. “It’s about understanding what is representative. We don’t want to inspect every square inch.”

On the 160-meter passenger ferry, Adam and his team picked 8 locations to inspect, roughly every 20 meters. They captured good data that they felt was representative.

They knew that their goal was to answer questions like: Is there any fouling on the ship’s hull or any damage that might be impacting the performance of the coating?  

Since Adam has been around the world with the Inspector 3 to perform ship hull inspections in many international ports, from Korea to Singapore to Scotland to Iceland, the parting advice that Adam offers for beginners is: “Pick the ROV with the right maneuverability. Be familiar with the controls and understand what it can do to achieve your goals.”

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