U.S. Navy Develops ‘Topside Drone’ System for Vessel Inspections

The U.S. Office of Naval Research demonstrated the Topside Drone technology above the USS Midway in San Diego, California, USA. Photo by Bobby Cummings, U.S. Navy.

The U.S. Navy says it has developed a new corrosion/anomaly detection sensor payload and processing scheme, which is outfitted to a commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to help inspect for material defects, corrosion, warping, and more.

Known as “Topside Drone,” the system has been developed by TechSolutions, a rapid-response science and technology program within the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) (Arlington, Virginia, USA) focused on prototype solutions to problems submitted by Sailors and Marines.1

“Currently, we really don't have much than our eyesight to look at corrosion,” says Lt. Rouben Azad, a student at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, USA. Azad attended a recent demonstration of the technology. “But I’ve been on ships where it is difficult for the human eye to identify corrosion. Corrosion is a big deal, and it's an ongoing thing.”

Two Payloads for Data Collection

According to ONR, the Topside Drone technology seeks to help mitigate that challenge by utilizing a corrosion/anomaly detection sensor payload and processing scheme, outfitted to a commercial-off-the-shelf UAV. The drone flies around the area of inspection and takes photographs and measurements for evaluation to determine if corrosion exists—and the severity.

“Corrosion is there all the time; elements like rain and seawater are constantly corroding a ship,” Azad says. “Through infrared imagery, the Topside Drone inspection technology can identify corrosion from 80 feet [24.4 m] away.”

Topside Drone features complementary payloads for data collection. A light detection and ranging (LiDAR) payload uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure distances to an object, with a LiDAR scan accurately capturing the geometry of everything in line of sight. From there, it is used to create a digital model of the ship.

Then, a second payload of visible/infrared camera captures images that orient geometrically to the digital model. The images are then algorithmically inspected for corrosion using computer vision.

“We're going to develop a 3-D [three-dimensional] model of the ship that's representing the current configuration of the ship that we can use to detect things like corrosion and [other] maintenance issues, hopefully before they become a problem,” says Dan Jennings of the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific. “This can keep the ship more available to the fleet.”

Technology Demo on USS Midway

In addition to enhanced identification capabilities, Topside Drone is expected to reduce the maintenance demand for Sailors, according to ONR officials.

At the June 2019 demonstration event, Dan Jennings operated the UAV remotely above the USS Midway Museum. Photo by Bobby Cummings, U.S. Navy.

“Sailors spend a lot of their time looking at different things on the ship, from corrosion to other equipment,” says Mark Bilinski, who also works with the Naval Information Warfare Center, Pacific and serves as the integrated project team lead for Topside Drone. “A UAV can go around and take photos of the topside of a ship, collect that data quickly and autonomously, and then the data can be evaluated to identify if corrosion exists without tying up a Sailor’s time.”

In the summer of 2019, a demonstration of the technology was conducted at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego, California, USA. Now decommissioned, the USS Midway is a legendary aircraft carrier from which aircraft were launched off its deck during the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm. Today, the U.S. Navy partners with the museum’s leadership team to use it for training and demonstration purposes.

As part of the Topside Drone demo, the computer vision algorithm analyzed the collected data and accurately revealed significant corrosion all over the USS Midway. “As a museum ship, it was a target-rich environment,” ONR says.

A video of the demonstration can be viewed here:

TechSolutions Program Benefits

According to ONR, TechSolutions accepts requests directly from Sailors on the deck plates and Marines on the front lines, with a goal of delivering prototype solutions like the Topside Drone technology within approximately 12 months.

“ONR TechSolutions is doing a lot of good for Sailors and Marines,” Azad says. “They’re taking our feedback and delivering the tools we need to accomplish our mission. Topside Drone will save the Navy money and free up Sailors to apply their skills to their primary duties.”

According to Jennings, the technology should also assist the Navy’s fleet management personnel, who will have a better idea of the real-time status of their ships and whether they have an upcoming maintenance issue.

Source: U.S. Defense Video Imagery Distribution System, www.dvidshub.net.


1 “Corrosion Control: Topside Drone Keeps Vessels Ship-Shape,” Defense Visual Information Distribution Service News, Sept. 4, 2019, https://www.dvidshub.net/news/338519/corrosion-control-topside-drone-keeps-vessels-ship-shape (Oct. 16, 2019).

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