Ship Cleaning Robot: Functions, Systems, and Manufacturing

Zeeshan Ali

Do you know that a clean hull can save over 5% of the fuel cost of a ship? But manual hull cleaning is a challenging and time-consuming task. As an alternative, engineers have developed specialized robots to tackle this dangerous job.

A ship cleaning robot is an autonomous machine designed to inspect and clean the hulls of large ships. Equipped with rotating brushes, high-powered nozzles, and computer controls, it can clean faster than humans while avoiding many safety risks. These automated cleaning machines can help reduce costs and increase efficiency in maintaining large vessels.

We’ll discuss how hull cleaning robots function, the systems and technologies involved in their design, and their manufacturing techniques. 


What is a Ship Cleaning Robot?

Ship cleaning robots are autonomous machines that remove marine growth from a ship’s hull while the vessel is still in the water. 

In addition to cleaning, they serve some other crucial functions. They remove marine organisms before they attach and spread. It helps prevent the transfer of invasive species between ports. 

Routine cleaning with robots also reduces the need for dry dock time, which cuts emissions and saves money compared to docking the ship. Some models have been shown to decrease a ship’s carbon footprint by an impressive average of 6.4%. 

There are a few different types of ship cleaning robots. Some are designed to safely scrub flat areas like the bottom and sides of the hull. They attach themselves to the ship’s surface by using powerful magnets. 

Other more specialized robots can be remotely operated or pre-programmed to clean hard-to-reach areas, such as the propeller, rudder hinge, and bilge keel. It’s possible to control various functions, like water pressure and thruster placement, in these machines. 

Pre-programmed models follow set routes and methods to avoid potential harm to delicate parts of the ship.


Components of Ship Cleaning Robot

Ship cleaning machines have an open-frame structure for better stability during navigation and cleaning. Here’s a table chart of all the components and their main functions: 

Components Main Functions
Robot Body Structure Allows robot to move, attach to surfaces, and remove fouling from ships
Adsorption Components  Produce attraction to grip hull surfaces without damaging ships
Thrusters and Propulsion Systems Provide propulsion and precise movement along hull for cleaning
Track Module Allows robot to detect lines or paths and navigate accurately while scrubbing
Robotic Arms and Tools Completes various cleaning tasks like scrubbing and spraying
Electrical Control System Receives instructions to direct robot movements and control functions
Sensors and Cameras Aid navigation and monitoring of cleaning process in real-time
Cables and Connectors Connect parts, supply power/signals, and allow communication underwater


Let’s discuss in detail how these components work together for the best outcome:

A. Robot Body Structure

Ship cleaning robots come in various body structures to best suit their intended cleaning tasks. The body components allow it to move, attach to surfaces, and remove fouling from ships.

i. Hull BUG

This battery-powered robot can clean large areas of the hull autonomously. It has four wheels for movement across the hull surface. 

Negative pressure helps it firmly attach without the need for tethers or propellers. Sensors help the robot navigate around obstacles. 

ii. Underwater Cleaning Robot (UCR)

These robots are designed to clean by fully submerging under water. It uses propellers to stay stuck to the hull during cleaning. 

Powerful thrusters propel it around the underwater surface. A sucking mechanism lifts away fouling organisms stuck to the ship.

iii. Autonomous Cleaning Robot

These machines take a different cleaning approach with a movable cleaning arm. Its multiple joints allow it to precisely target hard-to-reach nooks and crannies.

A laser scanner helps guide the built-in cleaning brush. Its autonomy comes from sensors that allow independent navigation.

iv. HCR

HCR robots take stability seriously with their open four-limbed frame. Four degrees of freedom in each “leg” provide balanced and precise movements. With replaceable cleaning brushes, they can clean large hull areas efficiently. 


The ITCH robot demonstrates how tethers can maximize cleaning power. Supported from above, its arm uses propulsion to “walk” along ship surfaces underwater. Soft brushes gently remove marine growth without harming paint coatings. 

B. Adsorption Components

A ship cleaning robot grips on a hull’s surface with the help of adsorption components. To produce enough attraction, the robot relies on four powerful magnets. These magnets sit vertically on a sturdy base. 

Placing the magnets this way with opposite magnetic poles next to each other maximizes the attractive forces between them. This magnetic configuration generates the maximum pulling power needed.

C. Thrusters and Propulsion Systems

Thrusters are responsible for providing propulsion and precise movement along a ship’s hull. Different robots use various propulsion methods tailored to their cleaning tasks.

For instance, some robots like the ROVING BAT and Fleet Cleaner use thrusters much like those found on underwater drones. These thrusters are typically electric motors paired with propellers that allow robots to actively maneuver and attach themselves against hull surfaces. The Roving Bat counters forces with its thrusters to stabilize on the hull. Meanwhile, the Fleet Cleaner utilizes built-in magnets along with thruster control.

Other models take a more passive approach. The HullWiper robots create a slight vacuum through their body to stay put on vertical or angled surfaces without thrusters. But propulsion systems are still valuable for initial positioning and ensuring secure contact during cleaning.

Thrusters enable more versatile cleaning compared to static systems. They let robots adapt to different sized vessels, surface textures, and water conditions. Many thrusters also conserve battery power through efficient designs. This extends operating times and makes recharging less frequent between cleanings.

D. Track Module

The track module guides the robot when it cleans the surface of large ships. It contains sensors to detect lines or paths on the ship’s hull. This helps the robot navigate accurately while it scrubs away dirt and marine growth.

The module’s infrared reflection sensor sends out light and detects how much of that light reflects back. Different materials, like paint or marine fouling, reflect infrared light differently. The sensor can detect these differences and recognize the edges between clean and dirty areas of the hull.

By using multiple track modules, a ship cleaning robot can follow the painted line on a ship. If it starts to veer off course, the sensors will detect this and send signals to adjust the robot’s movement.

Some robots use color detection instead of line following for navigation. Their track modules contain sensors that can distinguish one color from another. For example, a bright colored ship hull versus darker marine growth. 

E. Robotic Arms and Tools

Arms help the robots to complete various cleaning tasks, like scrubbing the hull underwater or spraying water inside tanks. The arms can reach complex areas that would be difficult for people to access safely.

For hull cleaning, robotic arms are usually equipped with soft brushes or water picks. By attaching to the hull with magnets or cables, the arms can thoroughly scrub away marine growth in tight spaces between hull plates and appendages. 

Some more advanced arms feature multiple joints similar to a human elbow and wrist. This polyarticular design helps robots clean curved surfaces like propeller housings with precise motions.

F. Electrical Control System

The autonomous function of a robot depends on the centralized electrical control system. This “brain” receives instructions and uses them to direct the robot’s movements across the deck. It processes information from the host computer to determine what tasks need completing.

The electrical system controls three motors that power the robot’s various functions. 

  • Up front, a stepper motor collects any garbage spotted. This motor precisely controls the grabber arm to pick up trash. 
  • In the back, a pair of DC motors drive the left and right sides. Their different speeds allow the robot to go straight and take smooth turns.

The control system processes everything. It decides when to move forward, reverse, or spin in place based on commands from the operator. 

G. Sensors and Cameras

Machines for ship cleaning rely on a variety of sensors and cameras to efficiently navigate and clean ship hulls. 

Ultrasonic sensors, infrared sensors, and pencil beam sonar help the robot to safely maneuver without bumping into obstacles. MEMS rate sensors and encoder-based odometry provide navigation data so it knows where it is going. 

Optical and sonar equipment generate detailed 3D models of the hull to plan the cleaning routes. And then cameras allow remote monitoring of the cleaning process in real-time.

Some examples of cameras that ship cleaning robots use are:

  • HD cameras of ROV: ROVs, which are underwater robot systems, use multiple HD cameras that display a full view of the cleaning as it occurs. Live feeds from these cameras transmit back to operators.
  • OV2640 of automated hull cleaners: These robots use onboard cameras, like the OV2640 camera module, to send a video stream. In-transit cleaners have integrated cameras too for users to watch cleaning progress. 
  • HD cameras of Keelcrab Pro: These underwater drones rely on high-resolution cameras. Users can control these cameras with a remote for visibility underwater. 

For recording, transmitting live, and providing navigation data, cameras play a crucial role alongside sensors in ship cleaning robot technology. They enhance safety and efficiency of the cleaning process from start to finish.

H. Cables and Connectors

Cables and connectors are important components of these complex underwater cleaning systems.

a. Cables

Cables connect various parts of a robotic system and allow for power and communication between components. Different types of cables serve different purposes depending on the robot’s design and operation.

For floating platform robots, cables are used to suspend the main robotic body from above. These suspension cables link the platform to its underwater cleaning part. 

Other robots operate with tether cables attached directly to the surface. Known as remotely operated vehicles or ROVs, these robots are hard-wired to support vessels above. Thick tether cables supply ROVs with electrical power and two-way digital signals in real time. 

b. Connectors

Connectors join individual cable sections or allow cables to interface with electronic components. Waterproof connections need robust designs for reliability underwater. 

Multiple cable types may also require special interconnects. Proper couplings handle power and data transfer securely between all robot parts linked by cords. 


Manufacturing of Ship Cleaning Robot Components

Building a robot to clean ship hulls requires durable components designed for the harsh underwater environment. 

Let’s break down how some of the key parts are produced:

Structural Frames

The robot’s structural frames provide its core support and protection. Metal fabricating methods like welding, custom machining, and waterjet cutting are common in making and shaping these frames. 

The most common materials for these parts are corrosion-resistant metals like steel and aluminum. These metals allow for precise shaping of complex structures.

Propulsion and Movement Systems

Electric motors, gearboxes, and propellers that power the robot’s movement require careful manufacturing. 

CNC machining turns high-strength metal or plastic materials into precisely shaped mechanical parts. This manufacturing method is better than 3D printing and injection molding because of its higher accuracy and faster production. 

For propellers and thruster housings, molding or die casting composite materials like fiberglass or urethane is the best way for replicating complex hydrodynamic shapes.

Cleaning Tools

Injection molding is the most popular method for producing the cleaning robot’s brushes and scrubbers. 

Molding can mass produce durable plastic tools with customized bristle types chosen for effectiveness. 3D printing also offers a way to create special cleaning parts. 



Ship cleaning robots are transforming the way of maintaining large vessels. By utilizing a combination of innovative technologies, these autonomous machines can navigate underwater surfaces to remove biofouling. This not only saves on fuel costs but also helps protect the ship’s exterior from untimely wear and tear. 

Need high-precision metal components for underwater robotics? Zintilon’s high-accuracy machining is ideal for crafting complex, top-quality parts. Contact us to get a quote at competitive prices.


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