Using robots to inspect and clean ships: Trials involving Wörtherseeschifffahrt vessels

Cleaning the hull of a container ship currently takes around eight days and costs between 100,000 and 200,000 euros. A team including researchers at the Department of Smart Systems Technologies aims to use autonomous robots for this task. Trials are currently underway on Lake Wörthersee.

“Although there are remote-controlled systems that can assist people in ship maintenance, so far we have not succeeded in using fully autonomous robots for this purpose. To date, it has not been possible to adequately demonstrate the robustness and reliability of such systems in order to convince shipping companies and end users of their potential”, explains Stephan Weiss, head of the Control of Networked Systems (CNS) group at the University of Klagenfurt. Together with his colleague Jan Steinbrener and his team, he collaborates on several work packages of the EU HORIZON2020 project “BugWright2 Autonomous Robotic Inspection and Maintenance on Ship Hulls and Storage Tank”.

The technology involves the use of different robots: Small helicopters, so-called Micro Aerial Vehicles (MAV) as well as small Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) will perform their tasks along with teams of magnetic wheeled robots on different ship surfaces. The aim is to inspect the structure visually and acoustically in order to identify patches of corrosion and to clean the surface as required.

The challenge: To do this, the underwater robot needs to know where it is without a GPS signal and it needs to be able to navigate autonomously. The low texture and smooth surface of the hull present obstacles to accurate camera or sonar-based navigation.

Project partners in the consortium include the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), where Alexandre Cardaillac works as PhD student at the Department of Marine Technology in the Applied Underwater Robotics Laboratory (AURLab). He will now be conducting tests on Lake Wörthersee together with Martin Scheiber and Alessandro Fornasier, PhD candidates in the CNS group at the University of Klagenfurt. Vessels operated by Wörtherseeschifffahrt company are at their disposal for this purpose.