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OCEAN WEEK: Utilising Uncrewed Autonomous Vessels across our Seas

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As we continue to reflect on World Ocean Day this week and its theme for the year, The Ocean: Life and Livelihood, we continue to be struck by the importance of recognising the deep blue. Not only in its relevance to the ever-growing ocean-based industry in the UK but also the responsibility to the sustainability of our world’s oceans that humanity continues to have.

One of the developments the South Coast Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications is particularly excited about (and one that could be a tremendously supporting pillar to recognise the values of World Ocean Day) is the utilisation of uncrewed surface vessels (USVs). In the Solent, the Solent Maritime Enterprise Zone (Solent MEZ) is an umbrella organisation leading the charge for an innovative and developed region – including the aspiration of developing a trial zone for USVs to develop technology and inform operational regulatory frameworks.

Another true crystallising moment in this year’s Ocean Day considerations of economy and sustainability, we sat down with three unique and exciting organisations exploring the capabilities of autonomous vessels and how they can utilise it to deliver benefits to businesses and individuals from the sea to the land beyond.

Aidan Thorn, Manager of Marine Robotics Innovation Centre

National Oceanography Centres’ A2KUI Testing at Loch Ness 2021

Championing funding and bid potentials with collaborative partners across the country and internationally, Aidan has been a busy man. NOC is currently working on projects across the country in regards to autonomous marine systems – most recently testing technology in Loch Ness, Scotland. But Aidan reserves particular praise for the capabilities of the Solent region to explore new innovations from a marine perspective.

“The area is fantastic in terms of ocean technology and ocean science and a really great community of companies and organizations looking to explore and utilise these themes. We have the triple helix here – government, academic and industry, all in the same area with similar goals.”

Some  of the most critical innovations being delivered is from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) who have won funding from  UK Research and Innovation, industry and other funding organisations that is seeing millions of pounds worth of collaborative research and development for Marine Autonomous Systems taking place in the Solent region – particularly to augment current crewed ocean research vessels with autonomous systems. But the road is rocky to say the least.

“There’s technology challenges in deploying unmanned systems, alone or in fleets – how do they communicate together in a whole system; how do they send back data in real-time; how do you get the data to the user?  And, there are regulatory considerations too – how does an uncrewed vessel and a crewed vessel interact together in the field? What are the codes of conduct for how these vessels work in the ocean?”

These headaches, amongst others, are juxtaposed though with the rich capabilities autonomous systems have, particularly with Ocean Day’s key themes this year. After three decades of utilising autonomous vehicles – rich developments have been made in understanding climate change as well as geo-hazard assessments (such as tsunamis), focus also now includes considerations of the ocean as an energy resource, a sustainable food resource , its integration with technology such as underwater cabling amongst many other things.

“It’s a really exciting time for marine robotics and marine autonomy. The world is listening now.  Ocean technology and ocean science is going to expand so much over the next twenty years – not just scientifically but industrially. The creation of mass jobs – not just offshore but in data centres on land is going to open up the marine environment for all. The potential of the marine is going to be massive”.

Damon Teagle, Professor of Geochemistry, School of Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton and Director of Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute at the University of Southampton

Damon has diverse interests across ocean research – from global geochemical cycles and ore deposits, to remotely operated and autonomous vessels, through to zero-carbon energy systems for ports and vessels. Focusing on the former, there is a huge potential for integrating autonomy (in various respects and extents) to current shipping vessels.

“The key role for autonomous systems is to make vessels and the tasks they undertake safer and more energy efficient. This could be done through optimising voyages to conditions and adjusting vessel trim and engine speeds.  Autonomy has key roles in defence and security as well, especially where long term enduring protection and surveillance is required.  A major challenge is how to cleanly power long term continuous and responsive monitoring at sea, especially with sophisticated and energy-hungry sensors and in remote regions. And to make the vessels smart enough and durable enough to undertake missions without continuous human oversight.”

For example, autonomous vessels could help protect vast areas of “ocean real-estate”, such as designated Marine Protected Areas surrounding the British Overseas Territories that include important fish breeding gourds but sadly attract illegal fishing operations. Uncrewed vessels patrolling these regions in combination with long range aerial drones and satellite technology is just one example of the successful utilisation of this technology for the benefit of these remote ocean areas and the protection of biodiversity in the oceans. Damon adds, 

“The Solent could be the globally leading centre for marine technology especially the urgent and imperative transition to zero-carbon zero-pollution shipping and maritime trade.  The maritime and wider community in the region needs to embrace the converging opportunities of excess renewable energy, green hydrogen, electrification and digital control and analytics.”

Dan Hook, Managing Director of Ocean Infinity 

Ocean Infinity Armada

With a background as a naval architect, Dan Hook is currently Managing Director of Ocean Infinity  Armada, a large marine robotics business based around the world. Currently developing service and underwater robots, Ocean Infinity are currently building a fleet of 17 new, large, uncrewed ships and accompanying remote control and data centres, the first one being built in Southampton – the Armada Fleet.

“It’s a big undertaking to deliver the armada – lots of new, remotely operated or autonomous underwater vehicles and lots of supporting technology around that whole system. But I see lots of opportunity for integration with the ports, with vessel traffic management systems, within academic circles and supply chain considerations. There’s so much potential for collaborative projects and bids such as innovate UK from this region”.

“A combination of uncrewed vessels, smart fuel, smart propulsion and good design can lead to 90% savings in CO2 emissions from typical vessels. Over the past two-three years, the autonomous industry and green shipping industry have really come together in the Solent – it is quite strong for that”.

There’s plenty of exploring still too – with robotic operations reaching a new apex, opening the aforementioned command centre on the coast and looking towards new collaborations for growth.

“Bigger companies, more output, more operations, more robotics, it’s just about scaling towards this over the next three, four, five years”.

Chloe McClellan
Media and Communications Assistant
Chloe McClellan is an experienced communicator and social media specialist.