Marine Pollution Responders: The Clean-up Crew Of Aerial Work Aviation

With growing worry about environmental pollution and its effect on our planet, how is the aviation industry playing its part in protecting our oceans? Patrick Ryan looks at this question and how Aerial Work aviation supports international and national efforts to understand, monitor, and combat one area of this environmental problem – Marine & Maritime Pollution.

Patrick Ryan  |  01st August 2023
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    Patrick Ryan
    Patrick Ryan

    Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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    Coast Guard flying over the coast

    Water, the very substance of life on earth, the substance that flows inside every living being, makes our earth the "Blue Planet," which is no less than endless or guaranteed. Life without clean water or saltwater oceans is unimaginable. Today, our oceans are on the edge of becoming an unbalanced ecosystem because of pollution. 

    Currently, through different campaigns and other activities, many organizations around the globe are involved in protecting the ocean from all such harm and trying to maintain vital marine life. These organizations aim to ensure that the oceans remain healthy and beautiful.

    As part of this community trying to combat marine pollution, the Aerial Work sector is busy supporting many of these organizations and institutions worldwide to research the effect of pollution, monitor ocean changes, and enforce policies that stop further degradation of our seas. 

    Particularly, Aerial Work aviation supports surveying & monitoring, science & research, enforcement, and clean-up efforts. Both manned and unmanned Aerial Work aircraft significantly contribute to these efforts. So, what is Maritime Pollution, and how does the Aerial Work sector specifically play its part in keeping our oceans clean?

    Marine & Maritime Pollution

    At its basic cause, marine pollution results from human material from industrial, agricultural, and residential activities entering the oceans and consolidating at toxic levels. Most of this waste comes from land-based activity, although maritime transportation is also a significant contributor. The types of marine pollution are grouped as pollution from marine debris, plastic & microplastic pollution, ocean acidification, nutrient pollution, toxins, and underwater noise. 

    Regarding maritime or sea vessel pollution, their specific effect on the marine environment is tremendous. Like all types of transportation using carbon-based fuels, ships produce CO2 emissions that significantly contribute to climate change and acidification. Besides carbon dioxide, ships release a handful of other pollutants contributing to the problem, such as oil, sewage, garbage, and noise pollution. 

    Multiple laws, policies, and treaties have been implemented over the last decades to mitigate this. In the case of Maritime Pollution, some of these treaties or conventions are: 

    • International Convention Relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties (Intervention)
    • Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (Dumping)
    • International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships

    Types of Aerial Operations & Services 

    So, what does this specific Aerial Work sector do to support stopping marine or maritime pollution? From an operational perspective, Aerial Work aviation can mitigate vast distances, shorten timelines, and provide an economical solution for managing large ocean areas and hard-to-reach marine ecosystems. 

    However, the specific types of services and flight operations routinely requested and conducted by aerial maritime responders are different from other Aerial Work sectors but are designed to support the specific needs of the Marine & Maritime counter Pollution community. These services and operations are:

    Aerial Services 

    Even though Aerial Work services are adaptable to many types of marine and maritime operations, the primary operational services provided by aerial maritime responders to end-users include: 

    Research and Scientific Surveys: Both manned & unmanned aircraft equipped with scientific instruments and sampling devices contribute to research efforts focused on understanding the impacts of marine pollution. Scientists can gather data on water quality, pollutant concentrations, and the behavior of contaminants using airborne sampling methods. This data assists in studying the long-term effects of pollution and developing strategies for mitigation and prevention. 

    Detection and Monitoring: Specialized aircraft equipped with remote sensing technologies (e.g., LiDAR, Hyperspectral, etc.) are deployed to survey coastal areas, offshore regions, and open waters. They help identify pollution sources, track pollution patterns, and monitor the movement of pollutants, such as oil spills, chemical discharges, or floating debris. This information is crucial for designing effective response strategies.

    Enforcing Regulatory Compliance: Aircraft surveillance is also used to monitor environmental regulation compliance. By conducting routine or random patrols, airplanes help identify illegal discharges, suspicious activities, or vessels that violate pollution prevention laws. This surveillance is a deterrent and helps authorities enforce regulations, promoting responsible maritime practices. 

    Incident Response: When an incident does occur, airborne observations provide real-time information about pollution incidents' size, location, and severity. This information is quickly relayed to ground-based response teams, maritime vessels, and relevant authorities, enabling them to initiate response efforts promptly. Timely coordination allows for deploying appropriate resources to the affected areas, such as containment booms, skimmers, or dispersants. Additionally, regarding oil spills, specialized aircraft will fly low above the incident area and spray dispersants to consolidate oil slicks into smaller droplets. 

    Impact Assessment: Following many pollution incidents, aircraft help capture aerial imagery and footage of the area, which aids in assessing the potential impact on marine ecosystems. High-resolution images and videos provide valuable information about the affected areas, sensitive habitats, wildlife populations, and the spread of pollution. This data assists in developing targeted response plans that minimize environmental harm. 

    While airplanes may not physically stop marine pollution, their aerial capabilities significantly enhance surveillance, detection, and response capabilities. By providing critical information to authorities and response teams, airplanes contribute to the efforts to prevent and mitigate marine pollution, protecting ecosystems and human health.

    Aerial Operations 

    From an operational perspective and within the services as mentioned earlier, aerial marine responders accomplish these tasks routinely every day: 

    Visual Observation: Pilots and observers on board the surveillance aircraft visually scan the ocean's surface for any signs of marine pollutants. They look for characteristics such as discoloration, sheen patterns, or patches of debris on the water. They use their experience and training to identify potential pollution areas. 

    Technical Surveillance: Specialized aircraft, such as surveillance manned and unmanned aircraft, equipped with advanced sensors and imaging systems, conduct routine or targeted flights over coastal areas and offshore regions. These aircraft can identify oil slicks and other signs of pollution on the ocean's surface. 

    Documentation and Communication: Once an area of pollution is detected, the pilots or observers on board the aircraft document the incident by taking photographs or recording videos. They note the incident location, size, and other relevant details. This information is crucial for further assessment and response. 

    Reporting: The observations and documentation are communicated to the appropriate authorities responsible for incident response, such as government agencies or environmental organizations. This reporting process can be done in real-time via radio, satellite, or dedicated reporting systems. 

    Coordination: The aerial reports help authorities coordinate and mobilize ground and maritime response units to contain and clean up the oil spill. The information gathered by the airplanes assists in assessing the incident's severity, determining the appropriate response strategies, and allocating necessary resources. 

    It's important to note that the exact procedures and technologies used for reporting ocean pollution may vary depending on the incident's country, organization, or specific circumstances. However, the general operating principle remains consistent: airplanes are deployed for aerial surveillance, detection, documentation, and reporting of pollution incidents, playing a crucial role in mitigating the environmental impact of such occurrences.

    Who's Keeping The Oceans Clean? 

    With ever-growing pollution in the world's oceans, seas, and waterways, this onerous duty of countering marine & maritime problems lies with intergovernmental, government, charities, and contracted service providers. Here are several organizations, for example, that support marine or maritime counter-pollution operations:

    UN Environment Programme (UNEP)

    The UNEP coordinates topics regarding environmental problems within the UN system. Its mission is to provide deliver science, leadership, and develop solutions to various issues, including managing marine ecosystems and green economic development.

    International Maritime Organization (IMO)
    The IMO is a specialized agency of the UN responsible for regulating shipping. The IMO's primary role is to develop and maintain a comprehensive regulatory framework for shipping, including maritime safety and environmental concerns.

    Oil Spill Response (OSR)
    OSR is a British firm focused on managing oil spills. OSR is industry-developed and co-financed primarily by the oil and shipping industry for emergency response. They aim to prevent and remove oil pollution in coastal waters and high seas. They also employ aircraft to detect, report and respond to such incidents.

    Aerial Responders 

    Regarding the aviators that support such organizations, the majority are aviation firms, non-profit groups, or government agencies contracted to provide specific operational assistance: 

    2Excel Aviation Ltd 
    2Excel Aviation Special Mission Division, a UK-based firm, provides contract air services, including aerial oil spill dispersant services globally and nationally, Search and Rescue, surveillance, and on-scene command & control support. Their specialized oil response aircraft fleet includes Boeing 727s, Diamond DA-62s, and Piper PA-31 Navajos. 

    Scottish Ministers and Marine Management Organization – AirTask Group
    AirTask Group, contracted by the Scottish Ministers and Marine Management Organization, primarily utilizes the Reims-Cessna F406 Caravan II to enforce UK policy through accurate monitoring, documenting, and reporting maritime activity. Their aircraft is equipped with several sensors (e.g., EO/IR) and associated equipment (Mission Management Unit, AIS, etc.) for day-night maritime surveillance operations. 

    Specialized Aircraft & Kit
    Regarding aircraft & kits supporting marine & maritime counter-pollution efforts, several aircraft types are commonly used. The specific aircraft deployed depends on factors such as the size of the area of operation, the location, available resources, and the mission's objectives. Here are some of the aircraft commonly utilized in marine & maritime pollution operations: 

    Surveillance Aircraft: These are typically fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters with specialized sensors and imaging systems. They conduct aerial surveillance over assigned areas to detect and monitor for pollutants. Surveillance aircraft may include platforms such as:
    • Maritime Patrol Aircraft: These are generally large fixed-wing aircraft equipped with radar, optical sensors, and other surveillance equipment. They have long endurance and can cover large areas, making them suitable for wide-area surveillance and initial detection of pollutants and incidents.
    • Light Observation Aircraft: These are smaller manned aircraft or helicopters that can operate at lower altitudes, providing a closer and more detailed view of pollutants. They are often used for visual observation, capturing images, and gathering critical data on the pollutant's characteristics.
    • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV): Like Light Observation aircraft, UAVs provide an additional "low & slow" option to detect, report and respond to the cause and effect of marine pollution. Their unique robotic capabilities allow one-off projects to leverage low density-highly capable platforms to accomplish project objectives. In other words, UAVs are a good solution for "scale-to-fit." 

    Oil Spill Response Aircraft: These aircraft respond to large oil spills caused by accidents involving tankers, barges, pipelines, refineries, drilling rigs, and storage facilities. Oil spill response aircraft typically include:
     Dispersant Spraying Aircraft: Dispersant spraying aircraft are equipped with dispersant spray systems to disperse the chemical over the oil slick. The aircraft have specialized equipment, such as spray booms or nozzles, to distribute the dispersant effectively.

    Helicopters: Helicopters equipped with dispersant spray systems are particularly useful for reaching and treating spills in difficult-to-access areas, such as coastal regions or narrow waterways.
    Aerial Ignition Aircraft: In situations where controlled burning is considered a suitable response option, aerial ignition aircraft are employed. These aircraft have equipment that ignites controlled fires to burn off the spilled oil. The most common type of aircraft used for this purpose is the helicopter.
    Transport Aircraft: Large transport aircraft, such as cargo transport planes, are sometimes employed in oil spill response to transport equipment, supplies, and personnel to the affected areas.

    It's important to note that the availability and utilization of specific aircraft types can vary depending on the region, country, and resources allocated for marine & maritime counter-pollution operations. Each operation is unique, and the selection of aircraft depends on the nature and scale of the operation, as well as the resources and capabilities of the responsible organization or government agency. 

    As you can see, the Aerial Work aviation sector is critical in supporting many global marine & maritime pollution efforts. To maximize the full power of aviation, manned and unmanned aircraft of all types are flown to safeguard the quality of the world's marine environment. Because of the unique capabilities aircraft deliver, the marine & maritime counter-pollution community is better equipped to make a difference. 

    Besides the many marine organizations and agencies battling ocean pollution, the Aerial Work aviation sector is in the field around the clock, directly working with these preservationists to make a difference. Until the world's oceans, seas, and waterways are fully protected, Aerial Work Marine Responders will continue to fly over the high seas to help protect our endangered and fragile "Blue Planet" marine environment.  

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