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Use of robotics to mitigate the application of hazardous anti-fouling coatings and improve vessel fuel efficiency


Biofouling increases drag which increases fuel consumption, emissions, and operating costs. Additionally, biofouling can be a significant factor in the spread of non-indigenous species that can negatively impact local ecosystems. Removal of biofouling organisms is typically performed during dry-dock cleaning and repainting. Anti-fouling coatings can be toxic to organisms which inhibits attachment on the vessel, but these same paints are also toxic to ingenious species where the vessel travels to. A viable alternative is to use less toxic paints that form a harder bond with the surface of the vessel, followed with regular hull cleaning using underwater robots in conjunction with artificial intelligence. This approach allows for regular cleaning events that reduces biofouling build up, reduces hull resistance, improves fuel efficiency, controls emissions, reduces the frequency of dry-dock cleaning, minimizing the disruption to vessel scheduling, while still addressing the negative impacts of biofouling.


The goal of this project is to compile existing evaluations of environmental impacts of current hull cleaning operations and assess the benefits and limitation with using robots for hull maintenance. This will include a summary of different types of robots and their applications.


Improved hull performance provides more efficient vessel propulsion yielding a reduction in fuel consumption and emissions. As a robotic activity, the need to dry dock the vessel is reduced, if not eliminated, which reduces the period that the vessel is not operating. Also more frequent hull cleaning will reduce the possibility of introducing non indigenous species in distant waters.

Related Research:

A search of TRB’s website did not provide any research reports on this topic.


Phase I

Issues related to biofouling

·Description of biofouling

·Quantification of impacts of biofouling

  o Increased resistance

  o Increased fuel consumption

  o Increased emissions

investigate current hull cleaning practices

· Material and equipment requirements

· Energy inputs

· Generated waste

· Time and cost associated with dry dock cleaning

Phase II

· Review of available robotic option for hull cleaning

· Description of operational steps to implement robotic options

· Summary of advantages and issues with each option

· Capital and ongoing cost of each option

· Required staff training for each option

Phase III

Case study for implemented robotic option


The product of this effort is a report that provides an overview of biofouling, its environmental impacts, alternative methods for hull cleaning, and the role that robotics and AI can play in these operations. This report can be posted on the internet, and distributed to vessel operators, port authorities, state and federal agencies, and non-governmental groups that have concerns with water quality, invasive species or are promoting fuel efficiency in the marine sector.


Results from this study would be of value to vessel operators who want to reduce fuel consumption or agency and organizations that focus on the reduction of environmental impacts of shipping, this could be a local non-government organization, port authority, or air quality agency.

Sponsoring Committee:AW030, Marine Environment
Research Period:12 - 24 months
Research Priority:Medium
RNS Developer:Richard Billings
Source Info:Changhui Song and Weicheng Cui, Review of Underwater Ship Hull Cleaning Technologies, Journal of Marine Science and Application (October 13, 2020)

New Robot May Help Keep Ships’ bottoms Clean, The Economist, May 30, 2020
Date Posted:05/20/2021
Date Modified:05/28/2021
Index Terms:Robotics, Cleaning equipment, Cleaning, Hazardous materials, Ships, Antifouling coatings,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Marine Transportation
Maintenance and Preservation
Vehicles and Equipment

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