Port authorities are resorting to increasingly advanced technology, such as drones, to enforce current and upcoming emissions regulations
As South Korea becomes the latest in a long list of countries to toughen up its regulations on shipping pollution, the monitoring of vessels’ emissions around the world is rapidly becoming ubiquitous.
Following the introduction of voluntary speed limits in December 2019, that are rewarded by discounted port fees, South Korea will create an emission control area (ECA) in September that will require ships at anchor in the five main ports to burn fuel with a maximum sulphur content of 0.10%, down from the current 0.5% limit. That represents a cut of 80% in sulphur content.
The regulations will bring South Korea into line with China’s regulations applying to inland waterways, as well as with the four ECAs designated by IMO. The goal is to cut fine particulate pollution by more than 50% at the five ports by 2022 and South Korea has set aside a US$100M budget to enforce these measures.
Under national regulations such as these, the surveillance limit is within 12 nautical miles of the coast. But South Korea is under pressure to broaden its ECA into an IMO-mandated one that would extend the regulatory boundary as far as 200 nautical miles and cover all ships operating in the waters between the two countries.
Port authorities everywhere give a wide definition to emissions. As well as sulphur, carbon and other unwanted gases, they are looking for illegal dumping of ballast and bilge water and of course sewage. Until the last decade, the most common method of surveillance involved an onboard visit by inspectors. However, in the era of 0.5% – or 0.1% in the ECAs – onboard visits will no longer do the job; they are time-consuming and inherently hit-and-miss because they are mostly random.
Deploy the drones
Rapid advances in surveillance technology mean port authorities can monitor a vessel’s emissions further and further out to sea. For instance, UK-based Martek Aviation’s drone can fly 100 km beyond the visual line of sight at sea, making it invisible to crews who may otherwise be tempted to hastily clean up exhausts. Equipped with highly sensitive, military-grade gas analysers, the drones have a flight time of six hours, quite long enough to cover an ECA.
“[Our unmanned aerial systems] remotely monitor emissions when the vessel is not expecting it,” the company states on its site.
In the EU many authorities rely on a technology known as ‘airborne optical measurement’. Developed by a professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, Johan Mellqvist, the system analyses a ship’s exhaust plume in what is called a ‘passive measurement system’.
“Solar light is reflected on the ocean,” explains Professor Mellqvist. “It’s reflecting up into sensors in telescopes that we have on an aircraft. From this we can see the ratio of SO2 to CO2.”
Then there are ‘sniffers’, as favoured by the port of Rotterdam among others. Mounted on an aircraft or placed under bridges, as in Denmark and Germany, these are sensors that ‘inhale’ the exhaust and analyse its content. According to a mid-2019 study by Wärtsilä, some authorities including those in Hong Kong, have started flying sensor-equipped drones straight into the ship’s plume for the most direct form of measurement.
But emissions monitoring near a port is very different from far offshore, which is where satellites come in useful. According to Wärtsilä, the EU has asked the European Space Agency to design a satellite that can monitor the situation from space. The timetable calls for this eye in the sky to be launched in the mid-2020s. It is unclear at this stage whether the satellite will monitor total emissions or be able to hone in on those of specific vessels.
Some monitoring systems start at ground level – or, more accurately, sea level. This is the case in the policing of nitrogen oxide emissions, which is a different, more complicated affair. Because of the harm that NOx emissions do, controls against their escape – and measurements thereof – increasingly start as early as the assembly and installation of the propulsion system.
Short arm of the law
So far though, all these monitoring technologies serve only as a guide for regulators, rather than admissible evidence. According to Wärtsilä, “courts in the EU and elsewhere will not yet accept their findings as proof on their own, so the systems are mainly used as indicators [that] show port state control authorities where to target their onboard fuel checks.”
However, it surely will not be long before the law catches up with the technology.
Old-fashioned onboard visits will remain part of the monitoring routine for the foreseeable future. Ships’ fuel tanks will be checked for giveaway signs of the banned heavy fuel oil and, in the case of scrubbers, data from tamper-proof sensors will be taken away for further analysis. All the signs are that these will no longer be random visits, but specific ones based on the suspicions of inspectors after interpreting digitised data.
The less-headlined issue of waste liquids still rests on that traditional method, the logbook. Here though, sloppy record-keeping raises a red flag for inspectors. According to emissions experts, they are looking for meticulously maintained entries that do not attempt to pull the wool over their eyes.
Meantime South Korea has not yet provided details of how it will monitor ships in its upcoming ECA but, given the country’s reputation for technology, it is likely to deploy the very latest.
Black boxes and digitalisation
Black boxes that monitor emissions onboard ships are selling briskly as the industry seeks to avoid whatever penalties and sanctions lie in store for transgressions against IMO 2020. Britain’s Emsys has fitted its sensor-based system on cruise ships, LNG carriers, container ships and even semi-submersibles, where it measures ‘mass emission’ – the total volume of escaped gases.
And at last count Norway’s ShipCems had installed no less than 1,350 units. Emissions monitoring is serious science. The ShipCems design, for example, uses a heated sample treatment throughout the process to ensure that the composition of the exhaust flue is being accurately measured. Highly adaptable, the product can be customised for all types of exhaust cleaning systems and for all ship fuels, including the old standby of heavy fuel oil.
UK-based Ricardo Energy & Environment, a strategic engineering and environmental consultancy that is also an authority on electro-fuels, has taken a different approach. Using data derived from the automatic identification system carried by all ships, it links up a whole series of measurements into a coherent whole. Starting with the ship’s location and speed, the system then throws into the basket a range of numbers such as engine power and the rate of fuel consumption. From all that the number crunchers can deduce the amount of CO2 emissions in any given area at any particular time.
These digital devices are replacing the bottom-up approach that has been the practice so far. Owners and operators of vessels larger than 5,000 gross tonnes have been obliged to file carbon reports to IMO and the EU, from which calculations are made about how much CO2, for instance, is lost into the atmosphere over a defined period.
An unwieldy system, it is certain to be replaced by data that is directly gathered by authorities.