Clickability tracking pixel

Norfolk Naval Shipyard Uses Drones to Assess Storm Damage

The storm damage assessment this spring was the shipyard’s first project using an unmanned aerial system, but officials say it will become a regular occurrence for safety and efficiency reasons.

by Katherine Hafner, The Virginian-Pilot / June 8, 2020
Shutterstock/Ritu Manoj Jethani

(TNS) — After a storm swept through Hampton Roads in mid-April, bringing gusts of up to 75 mph, surveying the damage at Norfolk Naval Shipyard was likely to take several weeks.

A traditional inspection would require a construction crew to build and move scaffolding to carefully look through a building where several large windows had been shattered.

Instead, a few people stood on the ground and remotely piloted a drone that got the job done in about an hour and a half.

The storm damage assessment this spring was the shipyard’s first project using what officials call an unmanned aerial system, or drone. But it’s certainly not the last.

Shipyard officials aim to start using the technology more, particularly in emergency management and risky inspection work, said Rob Hale, UAS program manager and security division branch head. It’s the product of a yearslong effort to get the necessary federal approvals.

“Eventually this will be a great time and safety saver for us,” Hale said. “It’s the ultimate working smarter, not harder, thing. Some of this work is extremely hazardous.”

In the future, drones could be used for routine tasks, such as flying out tools or paperwork to crews working aboard ships, he said.

In 2016, when the shipyard first discussed using the technology, the Secretary of Defense — at the time, Ash Carter — decided that cybersecurity issues hadn’t been addressed well enough and grounded use of the drones on the civilian side, Hale said.

Ever since, the shipyard’s been working through a waiver process and addressing those concerns as well as pilot certifications. Officials got approval in April.

The storm damage survey provided an opportune test of the technology. A drone was flown around the outside of the building, mainly observing the broken windows.

“It’s a rather large building, so there were some safety concerns,” Hale said. “By using the drone, we were able to assess that very quickly. … We were able to do it a lot quicker and a lot safer.”

Now the shipyard’s technology and innovations lab is looking at myriad other industrial uses for the drones, he said. Those could include rooftop and crane boom inspections, aerial surveys, taking photos for public dissemination and more.

“Anything and everything we could use them for to save man-hours and keep people out of hazardous situations, we’re looking at.”

So are the robots coming to take all the shipyard jobs?

Not exactly, Hale said. “I don’t see that it would be used to replace employees."

Some employees might need to be retrained, though.

"The person will still have to be there,” Hale said. For instance, instead of a crane inspector climbing up high, they could safely control a drone from below.

The shipyard has eight drones, Hale said. Officials buy them in parts, rather than fully assembled.The one deployed to look around the building recently cost about $50,000 all told, he said.

The Portsmouth site is acting as a sort of “proof of concept” for others across the Naval Sea Systems Command, Hale said.

“We’re just scratching the surface right now on what these things can do.” 

©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs