Hold Cleaning: Are Robots and Digitalisation the Future?

Hold Cleaning: Are Robots and Digitalisation the Future?

If you read any form of maritime media, you will undoubtedly encounter a regular supply of stories about robotics and digitalisation.  If you believe all the latest proclamations from commentators and journalists, you will think that the future of hold cleaning will be an entirely automated one.  But is that really the case?  Does the hype match the reality?  Brookes Bell’s marketing team sat down with Master Mariner, Captain Daniel Millett, Brookes Bell’s Director of Nautical, to find out more…

Hold Cleaning: The Issue

“Hold cleaning between cargoes has traditionally been a relatively dirty, labour intensive and potentially unsafe job for those tasked with it.” 

“It has also been a recurring source of delays, disputes and claims, especially in the case of tramping bulkers which carry multiple and different cargoes on a regular basis.”

“It quickly becomes clear that there are significant gains to be made for any Owner, Operator or Charterer that can improve the hold cleaning process,” says Daniel when explaining the issues surrounding hold cleaning.

Hold Cleaning the Traditional Way

“Traditionally, hold cleaning has been carried out by teams of people using hoses, brooms, extendable poles, and scrapers, etc”, explains Daniel. 

“It is a physically exacting and time-consuming task, especially when considering the scale of the holds on today’s bulk carriers.  What’s more, the consequences of failing a hold inspection and potential cargo contamination means that hold cleaning must be complete and thorough”. 

Daniel also highlights that hold cleaning is deeply influenced by the types of cargo the vessel is set to carry.  In other words, certain types of cargo require different types of hold preparation. 

For hold preparation, the different types of cargo can broadly be categorised as: 

  • Clean cargoes - such as soda ash or mineral sands that are highly susceptible to contamination.  These require holds to be ‘hospital clean’ prior to loading.
  • Moderately clean to moderately dirty cargoes - grains, fertilisers and cement are some of the cargoes that fall into this bracket.  They require a hold to be what is known as ‘grain clean’ prior to loading.
  • Dirty cargoes - most coals and bauxite are examples of ‘dirty’ cargoes and typically require minimal hold cleaning prior to loading.  However, this is not always the case with some dirty cargoes requiring a higher standard of cleanliness. 

To further complicate matters, while cement requires the holds to typically be ‘grain clean’ prior to loading, following carriage, cement would be considered a ‘dirty’ cargo, and we see a number of disputes arising from cleaning post-cement discharge.  Daniel adds that, “Depending on what cargo the vessel has previously carried, the hold cleaning process may also involve the use of chemicals to assist with cleaning”.

Regulations and legislation add a further layer of complexity to hold cleaning, as Daniel tells the team, “Additional work comes in the form of compliance with MARPOL Regulations, which stipulate how wash water and cargo residues should be disposed of”

“Furthermore, hold cleaning standards are often applied more stringently in some countries than others.  For example, Australian ports are notorious for the strictness with which they apply hold cleanliness standards”.  Daniel also adds that, “The various interpretations of cleaning standards between surveyors at different ports presents an extra challenge”.

“Finally, a proper hold cleaning process between cargoes should be thoroughly documented, including the production of photographic records of all hold cleaning and maintenance operations”

Daniel concludes, “As you can see, even from this very brief overview, hold cleaning can be a challenging process; however, thanks to advances in technology - it may soon become considerably less time-consuming, labour intensive, and more environmentally friendly”

Enter the Robots

Like many other parts of the maritime industry, hold cleaning has become a focus of efforts to automate work. 

A large number of start-up companies have arisen that are exploring how robots can be used to clean holds as a substitute to the traditional methods outlined above.  And, on the face of things, their efforts have so far proved impressive. 

Daniel has conversed with several of these companies as he seeks to understand the true impact that robotisation could have on hold cleaning – and any subsequent cases on which he may be called to advise. 

According to these companies, the benefits associated with their solution include: 

  • Faster cleaning – with a concomitant improvement in vessel turnaround time.  One company indicated that time spent on hold cleaning could be reduced by as much as 50%.
  • Improved cleaning performance – whereas crew members may struggle to reach inaccessible parts of a hold, a hold cleaning robot is better able to reach areas such as the topside and behind frames.
  • Reduced chemical usage – the use of a hold cleaning robot requires fewer or no chemicals, thus reducing environmental degradation.
  • Less sludge – according to some companies developing hold cleaning robots, their robot uses only 40 to 70mt of cleaning water (compared to 200mt+ during a traditional hold cleaning operation).  As a result, far less sludge is generated, resulting in lower sludge-disposal costs.
  • Reduced labour – certain hold cleaning robots require only one to three operators, significantly reducing the labour costs associated with hold cleaning.  The use of robots can also eliminate the need to use shore cleaning gangs.
  • Safety – falls during hold cleaning are one of the biggest killers on ships.  The use of a hold cleaning robot significantly improves crew safety.

On the face of it, these benefits appear to make a clear-cut case that the future of hold cleaning is a robotic one. 

However, a closer look at the reality of hold cleaning reveals a more complex picture; a picture that is made up of a palette of economic, social and even ethical questions…

The Reality of Hold Cleaning and Robotics

If hold cleaning robots such as those being developed can provide such benefits, one would expect vessels’ owners and/or charterers to be eagerly embracing them. 

Yet, to date, only a handful of vessels have adopted robotic hold cleaning technology. 


Below, Daniel has set out some of the key points he’s identified both for and against the widespread adoption of hold cleaning robots. 

Crew Safety

Daniel states, “An obvious and very welcome benefit to using robots would be improved safety conditions and less requirements for the crew to work at height during the ballast voyage.  Also, the crew are exposed less to the cargo residues during the cleaning process”.


“An important aspect of hold cleaning is the time taken, especially on short passages, for the ballast voyage”, explains Daniel.  “Depending on the type of cargo, the use of robots for hold cleaning can reportedly reduce cleaning time by approximately 50 to 75%”.


“Furthermore, the use of robots could potentially allow for less water and cleaning chemicals to be used.  This would assist in the amount of residual wash water following hold preparation”, adds Daniel.


When asked about the cost implications of robotisation, Daniel commented, “Like so many new developments and technologies within the maritime industry, the adoption of hold cleaning robots is governed in large part by cost”.

“Here at Brookes Bell”, he adds, “we are regularly called upon to investigate, analyse and advise upon hold cleaning disputes”.

“In many cases, these disputes have arisen due to improper hold cleaning and/or poor maintenance practices, which themselves may have arisen because of a lack of appropriate equipment onboard”.

“A hold cleaning robot will require maintenance, which will have to be factored into the budget and running costs”.

“It really is the case that all too often, bulk carriers lack basic hold cleaning equipment such as Tobey guns, which are connected to the vessel’s air and fire main and have sufficient pressure to reach the upper of the holds.  These really should, in my view, be a minimum onboard vessels as part of the hold cleaning equipment”.

“The reality is that some vessels’ owners are unwilling to invest in basic hold cleaning equipment, let alone costly robotic alternatives that can cost $100k or more”.

Daniel concludes by stating, “The economic reasons are arguably the biggest impediment to the adoption of hold cleaning robots and associated digitalisation”.


“It’s often suggested that crew members, who traditionally undertook hold cleaning duties, could instead be trained to operate the new hold cleaning robots”, explains Daniel. 

“The question”, he continues, “is, who trains these crew members?  And who bears the cost of this training?”

These are questions that don’t necessarily have straightforward answers.

“Consider the following scenario”, explains Daniel, “the owner of a vessel, which spends its operational life being chartered, decides to invest in a hold cleaning robot”.

“However, once chartered and in operation, it’s the charterer’s responsibility to clean the hold in between different cargoes”.

“That raises the question of whether they should also invest in training for their crews to use the robot”.

“If the charterer is chartering multiple vessels - not all of which will have hold cleaning robots - it doesn’t necessarily make sense to train their crews in a technology that they may only sporadically use”.

“In many cases, the time and opportunity cost associated with training may actually outweigh the benefits of using a hold cleaning robot”.

“In what is rather a ‘chicken and the egg’ scenario, we are unlikely to see widespread crew training in robotic hold cleaning until robotic hold cleaning becomes common”, concludes Daniel.

Technical Limitations

“As much as hold cleaning robots are technical marvels, they do - like their human counterparts - have their limitations”, states Daniel. 

“At the time of writing, several companies developing this technology acknowledge that their robots are not able to clean 100% of a hold.  Areas such as the hatch coaming, access ways, stairs, and stools with angles over 75º must still be cleaned manually using high-pressure lances, etc”.

“We are aware of at least one shipping company, with vessels on regular trades, considering designing bulk carriers with box-shaped compartments rather than conventional hopper tanks and topside tanks to facilitate robot-based cleaning”.

“It’s the physical limitations of current robots along with their significant capital requirements that may be the biggest limiting factor to their adoption.  Given their significant upfront cost, these limitations may prove to be a sizable barrier to the ‘robotisation’ of hold cleaning”.

“Another anticipated technical limitation of hold cleaning robots is rust removal”, continues Daniel. “An important part of any hold cleaning operation is the removal of any loose rust and paint scale which may have developed in the hold - and this has traditionally been done manually”.

“However, some companies developing robotic solutions state that their robots can be equipped with different tools to undertake a variety of tasks.  So, it may be the case that robots are able to tackle both cleaning and rust removal tasks”.


Aside from the economic issues that robotisation presents, there is also an ethical question to consider. 

“Traditional forms of hold cleaning have been a labour-intensive process”, says Daniel, “with ships’ crews often being paid a bonus to undertake this work.  In other instances, shore cleaning gangs are employed to clean the holds”.

“The point is”, adds Daniel, “hold cleaning is an important source of income and/or employment for people throughout the maritime industry”.

“The introduction of hold cleaning robots could diminish or even completely eliminate these employment/revenue generating activities for crews and/or shore gangs.  Is that necessarily a good thing?”

In short, the introduction of hold cleaning robots could lead to the ‘displacement’ of human activity. 


Talk of robotics and digitalisation may put one in mind of a sci-fi style future.  However, the reality is that robots are coming to the world of hold cleaning - with some shipping lines already making use of them. 

Yes, there are a plethora of challenges associated with their deployment and use, but that’s a recurring theme of any new technology.  There are always early adopters and those who follow later once the concept has been proven. 

As Daniel sums up, “What’s important is that hold cleaning robots are deployed in a way which makes safe, economic, and commercial sense, taking into careful consideration the issues that we detailed above”.  Daniel adds, “It is likely, however, the future will be a mix of new technology and the ship’s crew using more traditional methods”.

And, of course, if you intend to deploy hold cleaning robots on your vessels, it’s important you have a trusted advisor on hand that can help you avoid hold cleaning disputes.  An advisor like Brookes Bell…


Daniel Millett
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