EMSA remotely piloted planes help Spanish authorities actively monitor sulfur emissions from ships transiting the Strait of Gibraltar – sUAS News

During the summer, EMSA remotely piloted planes monitored the level of sulfur oxides released by ships passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The operation carried out by the Spanish Directorate General of the Merchant Marine – under the leadership of the Spanish Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda – marks the first time that these emissions have been monitored by drones outside the zones of specially designated emission control in Northern Europe. Flights have been operational since mid-July from a base in Tarifa and will continue until the end of October.

The project to test the effectiveness of drones in measuring polluting emissions from ships was set up by the Spanish Ministry of Transport, Mobility and Urban Agenda (MITMA), in collaboration with the Harbor Master’s Office of ‘Algeciras and the General Directorate of the Merchant Navy. Using EMSA’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), the objective is to detect sulfur oxide emissions above a certain level indicating a possible violation of the International Convention on Marine Pollution ( MARPOL – Annex VI). The current limit for sulfur oxide in ship fuels is 0.50% by mass.

The aircraft used is a CAMCOPTER® S100 and it is under contract with the EMSA of the consortium of Nordic Unmanned, Norce and UMS Skeldar. It has several features that make it a useful tool for the service, including the ability to take off and land vertically from an area less than 25 square meters, a flight range of over six hours and a range of over 100 km. To help detect gases generated by fuel combustion and expelled from ship’s funnels, the aircraft is fitted with gas sensors and cameras that cover both optical and infrared spectral ranges.

Since July 12, the RPAS has carried out two flights daily with an average of ten inspections per day. Current figures show that out of 294 vessels checked, some 27 were found to be in possible violation of the sulfur content limits 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 directly confirm non-compliance, it helps port authorities target ships for inspection and perform the necessary laboratory tests for possible penalties.


Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) services are offered free of charge to all EU Member States by EMSA. They were developed to assist maritime surveillance and ship emission control operations and can operate in all seas surrounding the European Union. RPAS services can support traditional Coast Guard functions, including search and rescue and pollution prevention and response. Services are offered to Member States individually and as part of the EMSA Regional RPAS Strategy, which allows multiple coastguard functions in multiple EU Member States to be supported by one or more services RPAS. A further regional expansion of RPAS is planned for 2021 and 2022. Find out where EMSA flies.


The European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) is a decentralized agency of the EU, based in Lisbon, Portugal. EMSA serves the EU’s maritime interests for a safe, secure, green and competitive maritime sector, bringing value to Member States through support for pollution prevention and control, maritime surveillance, safety and security, digitization and the provision of integrated maritime services, and technical assistance.

About Theresa Burton

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