Sulphur emissions from marine fuel have been a concern for many years. The heavy oil used to power the shipping industry contains 2700 times more sulphur that road fuel. The emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) created by burning marine fuel are known to cause particle matter (PM), a substance which has been proven to be harmful to humans and the environment alike.

The EU has strict laws in place to govern the acceptable levels of emissions. The limit is currently set at just 0.1% and it is the remit of the European Marmite Safety Agency (EMSA) to monitor these levels.

Monitoring SO2 levels is a monumental task which in the past could only be done when a ship was at dock or passed under a fixed sensor, like the one on Denmark’s Great Belt Bridge.

It’s an issue which Martek Marine has been studying closely and we’ve come up with a solution. We’re no stranger to disrupting technology in the maritime field and it’s this innovative streak which recently helped us secure the EMSA contract to police the EU’s Sulphur Emission Control Areas (EMCA).

We have chosen to take the unusual step of turning to the skies to solve the emissions problem and will patrol the EMCAs using specially designed drones.

The benefit of using these unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs for short, are many. For one thing, they are a lot cheaper to operate than conventional aircraft and can be operated remotely. This means drones carrying specialised payloads can be operated from up to 50KM away.

The sensor array we employ on our specially commissioned UAVs is similar to the ones NASA use to search for life on other planets.

The system works like this. The drones are piloted over a ship and as they fly through the ship’s plume air is drawn over an array of special sensors. These sensors are designed to analyse the amount of S02 present in the ship’s emissions.

On-board the drones, a gas analyser will study samples of air and monitor the SOx, NOx and CO2 levels.

The drones will then be able to instantly relay the data back to base, as well as offer constant live video feeds.

The drone’s sophisticated payload is designed to sample gases from a vessel’s emissions plume. The drones will also carry electro optical sensors, an infra-red imaging system as well as gas emission and AIS detection sensors.

Operators risk heavy fines if they are caught exceeding the SO2 limit of 0.1% and while the majority of operators are doing what they can to comply, we need a system which makes all naval traffic accountable.

Ultimately the goal is protect EU waters from unnecessary pollution, which already has a detrimental effect on our health and our environment.

The UAVs will initially provide a sulphur monitoring service, but Martek Marine has big plans for the future of our drone fleet. We’re already the only company in the world to be using drones to combat the rise in SO2 pollution and we are the world leader in the field, but we want to use the EMSA contract to push the boundaries even further. We aim to continue pioneering this next generation technology and soon hope to expand our service worldwide.

Related reading – Read the EMSA press release here.

If you want to talk to someone about drone surveying please send us an email to or visit our page for more details.