The sea is a hostile environment. Even in the gentlest parts of the ocean, saltwater starts to corrode whatever it comes into contact with. To keep a ship of Theseus from becoming a ship of Sisyphus, the Navy is turning to drones to aid with inspections.
To demonstrate the usefulness of a drone for shipshape inspections, the Office of Naval Research turned to the USS Midway, the venerable aircraft carrier turned floating museum. Parked on a pier in San Diego, the Midway has a particular advantage for testing maintenance tools: it’s the right size and scale of the task, without any compromising information on board. That is especially important when the drone used is a commercial off-the-shelf model.
“Topside Drone” is the development of a senor that detects corrosion and anomalies, outfitted to a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) UAV,” read an announcement about the project from ONR. “The technology will inspect and detect material defects, corrosion, warping and other conditions plaguing naval vessels. The drone flies around the area of inspection and takes photographs and measurements for evaluation to determine if corrosion exists—and the severity.”
The eight-rotor drone, featuring two sets of four-rotors on rails angled in a slight V-shape, appears to be an Intel-made Falcon 8 multicopter system. (As of press time, ONR had not yet responded to a request for clarification about which drone model was used).
Commercial-off-the-shelf technology is in a particularly unusual place for the Pentagon, with low cost and ease of use pulling acquisition toward off-the-shelf models. At the same time, cybersecurity concerns are leading Congress to legislate against the purchase of certain models based on country of origin without a waiver.
With the museum-ship acting as a test bed, ONR’s drone was able to use both LiDAR and an electro-optical/infrared camera to scan the ship. The LiDAR created a digital model of the Midway, and the camera images were placed in context on that model. Then, the pictures are “algorithmically inspected for corrosion using computer vision,” highlighting where corrosion is and what specifically needs maintenance.
Ship inspection by robot slots squarely into the “dull” part of the drone industry’s “dull, dirty, and dangerous” tag line. If the Navy finds the technique useful in serving vessels, and finds drones at a viable price point that meet security needs, swooping decks with robots could become as essential a part of sailor routine and swabbing decks.
Watch a video about Topside Drone below:
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.