What is a Maritime Drone?

A maritime drone is an uncrewed vehicle built to withstand challenging oceanic environments to conduct inspections, security, search and rescue, environmental monitoring, and other special use cases.

Maritime drones are becoming more popular to improve safety and efficiency while reducing operational expenses.

Other names for maritime drones may include naval UAVs or sea drones; these all refer to drones being used at sea. While maritime drones face challenges, there is a strong argument for their adoption as the technology advances.

In this guide on maritime drones, we'll take a deep dive into the following topics:

What is a Maritime Drone?

Maritime drones are used in the maritime industry, including drones flying and traveling through the water. However, this article will focus solely on airborne applications as they are more common.

The use of sea drones continues to garner popularity; as recently as 2021, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) awarded a €30M contract to TEKEVER for aerial surveillance of European waters. 

Drones are adaptive tools that are compatible with a range of applications. Adopting maritime drone technology is a significant step forward, and other international agencies will likely follow suit in adding drones into their fleet.


What Are Maritime Drones Used For?

Maritime drones operate in many environments that are confined, tough to navigate, and dangerous for crewed inspections or missions. Not to mention the time it takes to inspect and monitor when sending people into unknown situations. 

Let's take a look at how maritime drones are being used:

Cargo Hold Inspections

The cargo compartments of a ship are not exactly a desirable place for a human to be. 

Often, ships fail cargo hold inspections because of residual residues, peeling paint, and rust found in hard-to-access areas of the hold. 

Inspections are conducted for cleanliness to ensure that the cargo hold is clean and prepared correctly before new items are loaded into the space. 

Many countries have strict regulations for cargo hold tank maintenance; even having one grain of a contaminant could result in a failed inspection. 

Some examples of inspection failure contaminants include:

  • Peeling paint 
  • Rust and corroded surfaces 
  • Cereal
  • Stock feed 
  • Grains 
  • Feathers 
  • Soil 
  • Sand

Accessing the nooks and crannies where these contaminants are located is difficult because of their location. One must also consider the time and resources required to send a crew into the hold to inspect such a large area. 

By using a maritime drone, the hold is inspected quickly and efficiently to identify potential issues and remedy them. Doing so improves the crew's safety and reduces the ship's downtime.


Engine Room Inspections

If a fire breaks out in an engine room, it may be too dangerous for inspectors to survey. Damaged electrical systems, fuel systems, compromised structural components, and hot metal poses an extreme danger.

An indoor maritime drone, like the Elios 3 is used to survey the area to ensure a fire has been extinguished properly. In addition, the drone is capable of operating in extremely high temperatures. 

The ability to assess the interior of a ship before sending in firefighters allows responders to understand if it's safe to enter and what areas of the ship to target to suppress and eliminate any remaining threats.

Ballast and Fuel Tank Inspection

In terms of dangerous places, inspecting ballast and fuel tanks is hazardous and unbelievably time-consuming. Depending on the ship, inspections can go beyond several hundred hours. 

The longer a ship is down for inspection and any subsequent repairs, the more resources are required. Choosing to use an indoor maritime drone can reduce inspection times by 90%

Drones also can cover 100% of a surface area far more efficiently and accurately compared to crewed inspections. Additionally, because of the efficiency, ballast and fuel tank inspections can be performed more frequently, improving the longevity of these critical components. 

Watch the video below to see the Elios 2 inspecting a ballast tank:

Port and Ship to Shore Crane Inspection

Inspecting the inside of large maritime cranes is expensive, time-consuming, and physically demanding work. However, sea drones make inspections of these large metallic structures more efficient, safer, and more data-oriented. 

Maintenance crews can pinpoint structural and component defects and create a repair or replacement plan by visually inspecting in combination with AI software. Due to the sheer size, drones also eliminate the need for humans to climb these structures. 

Like other forms of inspection, the integration of a maritime drone program allows for more frequent inspections to bolster preventive maintenance and future planning.

Security and Surveillance

While drones are a great tool for indoor ship inspections, they also monitor borders, illegal fishing practices, drug, and human trafficking, and water pollution. Military and border agencies around the globe are also using drones for military and national security purposes. 

With numerous sensing capabilities and interchangeable payload equipment, drones are configurable for various maritime drone applications. For example, infrared sensors can locate individuals crossing borders at night or committing other illegal activities. 

Drones quickly cover a large area for monitoring borders without putting border patrol agents in dangerous situations. While increasing the patrol range, drones also help protect diverse border terrains spanning thousands of miles, which consist of large bodies of water and mountainous terrain. 

Maritime Drone Search and Rescue

First responders have been using drones on land for years, from fire fighting to locating missing people in dangerous situations. Drones are deployed far quicker and cheaper than traditional search vehicles like helicopters. 

Until recently, they were not used as often for maritime search and rescue missions due to challenging weather conditions and limitations of the technology. However, with their proven track record for saving lives, the technology for search and rescue sea drones is rapidly improving.  

In fact, lifeguards have been testing drones that drop flotation devices that inflate upon impact. In Australia, two teenage boys were able to swim to shore after a Ripper Lifesaver drone deployed a life-saving flotation device. 

An interesting aspect of this story is that the first responders did not have to go out to sea, which improves safety and reduces the resources usually required for an emergency. 


Drone to Ship Deliveries

Operating ships is expensive, and stopping at ports for parts, important documents, or other essential resources costs time and money. There are also boat delivery services that go out to the ship but still cost thousands of dollars.

With drones already in use for land deliveries, it only makes sense that drones would be a less expensive and practical option for maritime deliveries going forward. 

Benefits of Using a Maritime Drone 

Maritime drones are intended to be useful tools to help operations become more efficient. The following are benefits of using drones for maritime applications:

  • Reduced downtime of ships, cranes, and other critical infrastructure. 
  • Humans are not exposed to heights, heavy equipment, and dangerous gasses associated with maritime inspections and operations.  
  • Depending on the assessment, drones can reduce inspection times by days to several hundred hours. 
  • Drone inspections require less personnel and resources, which significantly reduces expenses. 
  • Visual data is collected remotely, removing humans from danger. 
  • Inspections are more detailed and accurate. 
  • Inspections are conducted more frequently due to drone technology's time and money savings. 
  • Maritime drones aid in covering large borders, and securing military bases, ships, and security-sensitive infrastructure. 
  • Search and rescue teams can locate missing persons and deliver life-saving equipment allowing more time for first responders to develop a plan. 
  • Using drones for search and rescue missions improves response time and limits exposure to dangerous conditions. 
  • Maritime drone deliveries can drop off essential documents, medicine, or parts to ships without returning to port. 


Maritime Drone Case Studies

The use of drones in the maritime industry is growing each day. An area of solid development is inspecting interior ship components such as ballast and cargo tanks, engine rooms, and more. 

DroneUp Saves 700+ Hours in ABS Tank Inspection with Elios 2

Application: ABS Warship Cargo Tank Inspection

Mission: To conduct ballast and cargo tank inspections of a warship using an Elios 2 drone to reduce the estimated 800 work hours by 90%. Cleaver and the DroneUp team conducted this mission.    

Results: Cleaver and the DroneUp team proved the claims they'd made in their bid—namely, using a drone to inspect a warship's tanks could make the entire process faster, cheaper, and safer.

Maritime Drone Significance: This study shows how maritime drone technology can significantly reduce the time and money required to conduct complex ship inspections. The success of this inspection showcases how drones in the maritime industry can be maximized in the future. 

To read more about this case study, click here


$2 Million Saved Using Elios 2 for Oil Tanker Cargo Inspection

Application: Oil Tank Cargo Inspection

Mission: To analyze a crack detected in the cargo tank and determine the extent of the damage to help develop a repair plan. The inspection was performed by Inspection Service Ltd, which chose the Elios 2 because it eliminates the need for building scaffolding and putting workers in a dangerous environment.

Results: Using the Elios 2, inspectors were able to locate the crack and assess the damage quickly. The visual data was also used to identify other areas on the ship where defects may be present. After a review, two more similar cracks were detected in other areas of the ship. Had these cracks been identified later, they would have resulted in expensive repairs and downtime.

Maritime Drone Significance: Drones inspections are valuable tools for preventive maintenance that will save companies time and money in the long run. The efficiency of drones and cost-saving benefits mean more frequent inspections can be conducted. 

To read more about this case study, click here.  

Elios 2 Drone Fully Replaces Manual Inspection

Application: To Fully Replace Manual Inspections

Mission: The RoNik team was already using drones in their inspections but found they still needed to perform some manual inspections to get the complete picture. This test aimed to see if the Elios 2 could meet all of their needs and eliminate the need for manual inspections. 

Results: These features combined led representatives from formal inspection bodies Bureau Veritas and Lloyds Inspection Agency to approve the Elios 2 as a formal inspection tool.

Maritime Drone Significance: The Elios 2 was run through 15 tests, including general boiler, pressure vessel, and tank inspections, and exceeded expectations. The capabilities of using the Elios 2 showcase the future for drones in the maritime industry.  

To read more about this case study, click here.

Shipping Inspections Smooth Sailing With Drone Technology

Application: Ship Tank Inspection

Mission: Perform six tank inspections to ensure no rust, corrosion, or structural damage.  

Results: By using the Elios 2 drone in the ship tanks, a team of two could inspect 6 tanks in a single day. The added benefit was not needing additional lighting equipment as the drone is already equipped, saving more money.

Maritime Drone Significance: The Elios 2 took the downtime estimate of 18 days and completed the inspection in 1 day. This saved over $20,000 as there was no need for a large crew and scaffolding.   

To read more about this case study, click here.

Maritime - Ship to Shore Cranes

Inspecting The Ballast Tank of a Container Ship

Application: Ballast Tank Inspection 

Mission: Inspect a ballast tank within a container ship to check for structural integrity, corrosion, and monitor the anodes within the ballast. The drone used for the mission was the Elios 2. 

Results: The tanks were inspected along with the anodes, and the inspection was completed within 2 hours. Visual data confirmed the tank was structurally sound and met all requirements.  

Maritime Drone Significance: Many container ships have more than 20 ballast tanks, and there are typically hundreds of vessels in a fleet. The ability of a drone to inspect these tanks quickly reduces expenses and downtime while increasing worker safety. 

To read more about this case study, click here.

Types of Maritime Drones

Choosing a maritime drone will ultimately determine whether your intended applications are indoor or outdoor.

Indoor Maritime Drones

Flyability Elios 3

The Elios 3 is designed to digitize the inaccessible and quickly convert data into digital insights. Its spherical enclosure and FlyAware software allow the drone to safely inspect the inside ballasts, tanks, cargo holds, engine rooms, and really within any enclosed structure. 

Its dual thermal 4K camera system and the 16K lumen dust-proof lighting system help identify signs of cracking, corrosion, and structural issues. The Elios 3 is future-proof with a modular payload bay with a dedicated LIDAR port and another for auxiliary payloads.

Utilizing the Inspector 4.0 inspection software, workers boost efficiency by understanding where to focus their maintenance efforts. 

Flyability Elios 3 Specs / Features:

  • Dual Thermal/ 4K Camera Sensor: 12 megapixels HD live streaming
  • Lighting: 16k Lumen dust proof lighting with oblique lighting 
  • Flight Time: 12 minutes 
  • Flight Speed: Up to 7 m/s
  • Transmission System: Beyond visual line-of-sight


Outdoor Maritime Drones

DJI Matrice 300 RTK

The Matrice 300 RTK is built to withstand harsh maritime conditions. An IP45 rating, 6-directional sensing, and self-heating battery allow it to thrive in any environment. Its compatibility with a range of Zenmuse and third-party sensors offers flexibility with numerous types of inspections. 

With the Hot-Swappable battery system and 55 minutes of flight time, never worry about battery life. Aviation-grade situational awareness provides aircraft attitude, altitude, velocity, wind, speed, and wind direction in DJIs all new Primary Flight Display. 

Learn more about the DJI Matrice 300 RTK.


DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced

The Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced packs industrial-sized power into a relatively small platform. Its agile design makes it easy to fly and operate the drone in any condition. The dual 4K thermal sensor provides stunningly clear imagery resulting in unparalleled inspection and surveying data. 

DJI's RTK module is excellent for accurate positioning with waypoints as the drone navigates oceanic environments. The additional modular accessories, including the Speaker, Beacon, and Spotlight, are ideal tools to aid search and rescue efforts.

Learn more about the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced. 

Mavic-2-enterprise-advanced-maritime-drone copy

Schiebel CAMCOPTER S-100

The Schiebel CAMCOPTER S-100 is a versatile helicopter-style drone for civilian and military applications. Its long range, performance, high-tech sensors, and navigation equipment make it optimized for maritime operations. 

360°of coverage aids in tracking and the identification of maritime-based objects and events. The CampCopter S-100 only requires two people to operate it, and it has small equipment and logistical footprint.

Integrated spotlights and loudspeakers are also available for search and rescue applications. 

Schiebel offers a wide range of sensor options, including:

  • Electro-Optical / Infrared  
  • Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)
  • Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging (LIDAR )
  • Signals Intelligence (SIGINT)
  • Hyperspectral 

Learn more about the Schiebal CAMPCOPTER S-100.


Aerocameras AeroHyb Hexacopter

The AeroHyb Hexacopter is an autonomous hybrid drone that uses electricity and gasoline to propel its way through the sky. With six rotors and a 7 hour flight time, its endurance is hard to beat. 

It can maintain in the air for two hours when carrying the max payload (11 lbs) and has a range of 62 miles. This impressive range and payload capabilities make the AeroHyb Hexcopter an excellent choice for maritime applications like dropping off a flotation device.

The aircraft easily breaks down into pieces for transport, and the mounting hardware allows users to configure the platform with their preferred sensors. 

Learn more about the Aerocameras AeroHyb Hexcopter



We are hosting demonstrations throughout the world to showcase our new indoor inspection drone.

Sign up to see the Elios 3 live in a location near you.


Table of contents