This paper describes how advances in autonomous navigation on a vessel hull, coupled with remote vehicle control can enable routine and efficient hull grooming and inspection. Emerging technology allows for the use of smaller robots, with minimal industrial support and significantly reduced manpower requirements, making grooming accessible, both practically and financially. The advancing technologies enabling this capability include hull relative navigation, sonar feature based detection, and long-range stand-off command and control. The advancement and intersection of these technologies will enable the habitual and frequent efforts required for grooming to be successful.
The impacts of marine biofouling to the maritime and naval communities, as well as the planet as a whole are well documented. Whether its increased fuel consumption and carbon emissions, transport of invasive species, or that it just plain looks bad, marine biofouling needs to be addressed more aggressively, be that timely removal of growth, or increased monitoring of hull condition to know when it's time for removal. Current methods of removing growth are costly both in time and money, potentially environmentally unfriendly and risk impacting the health of the ship's coating system. The concept of grooming has been well documented and discussed, but its delivery is limited in practice. Grooming has been defined as "The gentle, habitual and frequent mechanical maintenance of submerged ships' hulls in order that they remain free from extraneous matter such as fouling organisms and particulate debris, with minimal impact to the coating" (Tribou 2010)1. While there is a lot in that definition, two critical words are habitual and frequent. There are a variety of ways that anything can become habitual or frequent, but as it applies to ship maintenance, efficiency and economics are key factors. To clean a ship hull every week or two, it has to be efficient and (relatively) inexpensive.
The current approaches to in-water hull maintenance, specifically as it relates to biofouling removal and/or inspection are a mixture of diver performed activities or via a robot. Dive operations can be costly, potentially risky and are significantly impacted by environmental conditions. Considering those factors, a robotic solution seems preferrable. Yet, " until the robot can do the job as expected with minimal operator input and until the human-robot relationship is optimal, a robot is not applicable for the job" (Kinnaman 2019)2 . In other words, if a robot needs significant supervision to do a job a human can already do, it doesn’t make sense to use the robot.