Photo: Nordic Unmanned

EMSA’s drones discover sulphur emission violations on ships sailing in Strait of Gibraltar

The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) has found 27 vessels sailing in the Strait of Gibraltar to be in possible violations of the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) regulations on sulphur oxides (SOx) emissions.

 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 goal is to detect sulphur oxide emissions above a certain level indicating a possible breach of the International Convention on Maritime Pollution (MARPOL Annex VI). The current limit for sulphur oxide in ship fuels is 0.50% by mass.

The aircraft used to carry out the operations is a CAMCOPTER S100 and it is under contract to EMSA from the consortium of Nordic Unmanned, Norce and UMS Skeldar. 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 remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) have been carrying out daily two flights with an average of ten inspections per day. Current data 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.

In 2008, IMO unanimously adopted the global sulphur cap requiring all ships to use fuels with a maximum 0.5% sulphur content as of January 1, 2020. The 2020 implementation date was made dependent on the results of a study to determine whether sufficient low sulphur fuel would be available then.

To prevent ship owners and operators from violating IMO’s 2020 targets, some governments have introduced penalties, including Sierra Leone. According to the Sierra Leone Ports Authority, from 1 September 2021, shipping company will risk penalties of up to $15,000 should they continue to carry fuel with a sulphur content exceeding 0.5%.

In March last year, major port state regimes including Paris MoU, Tokyo MoU and the United States Coast Guard (USCG), announced their plans to rigorously enforce the IMO’s Sulphur 2020 targets.

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