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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Abu Dhabi boat show: All lost at sea? Send in the Dh2m drone that can put out fires

Unmanned surface vessels in operation in the UAE can fight fires, patrol coastlines and monitor pollution

A sea drone by Al Marakeb on show at the Abu Dhabi International Boat Show. Victor Besa / The National
A sea drone by Al Marakeb on show at the Abu Dhabi International Boat Show. Victor Besa / The National

A deadly fire breaks out at sea. Flames and smoke billow from an oil tanker but it is too dangerous for an emergency vessel with crew to get close.

All looks lost, until the sea drones roll in.

Unmanned surface vessels, or USVs, are the latest in marine technology - and they are ready to race to the rescue in the UAE.

They are an autonomous surface boat that can fight aggressive fires without putting the safety of a crew at risk, monitor pollution, guard marinas and provide security.

Two of the latest models made by UAE-based Al Marakeb are on display at the Abu Dhabi Boat Show, which is running at Adnec marina until Saturday.

One is a twin-engine firefighting model, costs about US$500,000 (Dh1.83m) and can be operated remotely with something as simple as a 3G network with a joystick or control pad.

The firefighting model has a special hose that sucks in seawater, mixes it with a special foaming agent and sprays it into the fire. The vessel can get as close as necessary - something that wouldn't possible if there was the safety of crew members to consider.

The boat is controlled by software that connects to anything that needs to be manipulated such as global positioning systems and radar. Artificial intelligence is not used and the boat does not think for itself.

“The boat will not do anything unless it has been imputed. And someone can always take over,” said Al Marakeb’s David Dubois, who is from the UK.

The vessels range in price from US$60,000 (Dh220,000) to $600,000 (Dh2.2m). Al Marakeb would not reveal how many they sell a year. But manufacturing capacity is for 35 of the boats annually and the firm is at “maximum capacity”.

The company can also convert regular vessels into autonomous craft using its software to connect the rudder, navigation and GPS with sensors to determine the vessel’s heading and position.

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“The system is easy to install,” said Mr Dubois.

“It doesn’t matter if you have outboard or inboard engines, we can talk to the system and make it work.”

Regarding potential job losses resulting from drones in the maritime industry, Mr Dubois predicts they could have an effect.

The first consoles had steering wheels to replicate boats for older captains but these have been dispensed with for controllers and joysticks.

“The old captains have no chance. They are not dextrous enough,” he said.

Autonomous vessels are used to replace jobs that are dirty, dangerous or repetitive. Mr Dubois points to some marinas, which are required to have several manned boats for security. These could be replaced with sea drones, while countries that need to patrol thousands of kilometres of coastlines could use them instead of having to train costly crew, deploy and house them.

There is no official global standard regulating the use of USVs yet with the International Maritime Organisation yet to step in. But Mr Dubois believes this is a needed move.

“Look at what happened with coal mining. The International Maritime Organisation is slow to adapt because they are looking at all these angles. It is going to be a disruptor and you will see people moving away. Economically it makes sense.”

Separately, Dubai Municipality unveiled a sea rescue drone earlier this month. The unmanned aerial vehicle called the “flying rescuer” can help save people that get into difficulty while swimming by dropping life buoys. The drone even has its own mini helipad.