This underwater robot cleans ships to cut emissions and protect marine ecosystems

  • The build-up of marine plants and animals on ship hulls is an age-old problem.
  • This ‘biofouling’ can increase fuel consumption by up to 40% and boost emissions.
  • It can also transport species to new environments where they cause havoc in the local ecosystem.
  • But now a robot has been invented that cleans ship hulls every time they anchor.
  • Its makers say it will bring huge environmental benefits.

Imagine a ship making its way across the ocean. It might look elegant as it cuts serenely through the waves. But a look below the water reveals a different picture, with countless aquatic species like barnacles covering the craft’s hull.

It’s been estimated that severe underwater biofouling – as this accumulation of drag-inducing marine life is known – can increase a ship’s fuel consumption by up to 40%, boosting already high CO2 emissions. More than 4,000 marine species have been identified as biofouling organisms.

Maritime transport emits around 940 million tonnes of CO2 annually and is responsible for about 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s been estimated that if global shipping were a country, it would be the sixth biggest polluter, generating more emissions than Germany.

This fouling doesn’t just slow ships down. The build-up may include species that can cause severe harm to native species in the new environments they’re transported to. It’s something maritime conservation bodies are increasingly concerned about.

What a drag: biofouling on the underside of a ship.

Image: Jotun

Back in 2017 the bulk carrier DL Marigold became the world’s first biofouling casualty when it was ordered to leave the waters of first New Zealand and then Fiji because it posed an invasive species threat.

Stopping the build-up isn’t plain sailing. Three centuries ago they tried sheathing ships’ hulls in copper. Later, paints made with toxic chemicals were used. After they were banned, coatings were designed to stop plants and marine animals gaining a toehold.

Nothing, up to now, has managed to stop what for ship owners is an expensive problem. In severe cases, there’s been no option but to check the ship into a dry dock for treatment, which can cost anywhere from tens of thousands to several million dollars.

HullSkater robot at work on a ship’s hull

Image: Jotun

So a new robot ship cleaner is being hailed as a breakthrough in the battle against marine fouling. Jotun, a Norwegian paint maker, has produced HullSkater, an underwater machine that cleans a ship’s hull and prevents the build-up of fouling.

Holding itself to the ship by powerful magnets, the robot removes marine life before it becomes established. Because it travels with the ship, it can be used every time the vessel is at anchor or in harbour and is designed to work without causing damage or erosion.

Once launched, the robot is operated remotely from central hubs using Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud technology. By inspecting the hull as it cleans, it removes the need for divers, helps avoid that costly dry dock downtime and increases the time ships can spend at sea.

Build your own: instructions for a Lego version of the HullSkater

Image: Jotun

As a fun way of promoting the robot – as well as giving potential owners an idea of what it looks like – Jotun has even produced instructions on how to build one out of Lego. There are 37 steps to build this version.

“Sustainability in the oceans has become more and more important,” said Jotun CEO Morten Fon at the robot’s virtual launch. This latest innovation came about, he added, when the company switched its focus from just “antifouling and paint, to thinking about hull performance”.

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

“If we were able to deploy this service broadly to ships across the world, we would have a huge environmental benefit,” said Ove Fredheim of telecoms provider Telenor, a member of what he describes as the ecosystem of “technology leading Norwegian companies” behind the project.

In 2019, the World Economic Forum, the Global Maritime Forum and Friends of Ocean Action launched the Getting to Zero Coalition at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, with the goal of decarbonizing the international maritime shipping sector by 2030.

Decarbonizing shipping was also the subject of a session at the Forum’s Race to Zero Dialogues virtual summit in November 2020 – the debate can be viewed on the event’s webpages.

Innovations such as the HullSkater could be an important step in helping to reach that goal.

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