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Tuesday, September 21, 2021 

The European Marine Safety Agency (EMSA) remotely piloted aircraft have been monitoring the level of sulphur oxides released by ships transiting the Strait of Gibraltar, one of the worlds busiest shipping lanes.

The operation carried out by the Spanish General Directorate of Merchant Marine  – under the direction of the Spanish Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda – marks the first time these emissions have been monitored by drone outside the special designated emission control areas in Northern Europe. The flights have been in operation since mid-July from a base in Tarifa and will continue until the end of October. 

The project, designed to test the effectiveness of drones in measuring pollutant emissions from ships, was set up by the Spanish Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda (MITMA), in collaboration with the Algeciras Maritime Captaincy and the General Directorate of Merchant Marine. Using EMSA’s remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), the goal is to detect sulphur oxide emissions above a certain level indicating a possible breach of MARPOL Annex VI. The current limit for sulphur oxide in ship fuels is 0.50% by mass.

The aircraft used is a Camcopter S100 under contract to EMSA from the consortium of Nordic Unmanned, Norce and UMS Skeldar. It has several features making it a useful tool for the service, including the ability to take off and land vertically from an area less than 25m2, flight endurance of over six hours and a range of more than 100km. To help detect the gases generated by fuel combustion and expelled through ship funnels, the aircraft is equipped with gas sensors and cameras that cover both optical and infrared spectral ranges.

Since 12 July, the RPAS has been carrying out daily two flights with an average of 10 inspections per day. Current figures show that of 294 vessels controlled some 27 were found in possible breach of the limits of sulphur content in their fuel. The measurements and records are automatically encoded in the information exchange system which triggers an alert in the EMSA THETIS-EU database. While this does not confirm non-compliance directly, it does help port authorities target ships for inspection and proceed with the lab testing necessary for any eventual sanctions.

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