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Persistence Pays Off: Vehicles Indispensable in Marine Science

Professor Ed Hill
Executive Director,
National Oceanography Centre


In the last decade, the successful development of gliders and AUVs has allowed marine research to go in a completely different direction. The increasing availability of these vehicles has changed the expectations of users and scientists who are coming up with evermore challenging scenarios for their use.

Developments in the reliability and endurance of these craft mean that users are demanding longer mission duration, higher levels of autonomy and sensor capability. These traits are being achieved, and whether on the surface or undersea, scientists can now plan projects that make use of these attributes—a persistent presence in our seas. Governments, too, are seeing the value of using instruments that can generate high-quality data in hostile environments at a cheaper cost than is possible with ship-based surveys.

In response to these trends, last year, the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) launched MARS, the Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems facility. MARS is the U.K.’s principal provider of AUVs and gliders to the marine science community. It also acts as a forum for the development of ideas and direction of technology and applications, and champions an area of engineering that is on the threshold of a new era of technology.

The past 10 years have been an exciting time to work in ocean engineering. The industry has expanded and attracted the best minds—both engineers working on new developments and scientists making full use of these technologies.

The crucial change has been the increasing maturity of the technologies available. The application of innovations from other sectors is behind this success, particularly the miniaturization of hardware. In the early ’80s, GPS systems were the size of a brick; now they are no bigger than a credit card. Exponential improvements in the IT industries have brought about the availability of higher-level computer programming that has resulted in increased reliability.

The big challenge to AUV and glider operations will always be energy. Here, developments in battery technology are leading to increased energy density. But the exciting developments for the future are in utilizing environmental energy sources, such as wind, wave and solar power, to extend the duration of vehicles’ missions.

A persistent and progressive ocean presence means that soon, instruments like NOC’s Autosub Long Range will be able to survey the Atlantic Ocean from coast to coast, travel under Arctic ice or be left in situ for up to six months. Taking advantage of these advances, scientists at NOC intend to use gliders and AUVs to map and monitor the seas around the U.K. There is funding to develop the use of AUVs to survey marine protected areas (MPAs). Part of the project is to assess the capacity and capabilities of the U.K. AUV and glider fleet, and to provide case studies illustrating how data collected with these instruments can be used to support policy requirements such as monitoring MPAs over the long term.

There is also scope to improve the instruments on board the payload that look at the chemistry of the marine environment, such as nutrients and DNA. NOC has seen exciting progress in the development of biogeochemical sensors—lab-on-a-chip technology that can be made small enough to perform tasks previously only undertaken in a lab.

This new industry has not been without problems. The large number of gliders being deployed means, inevitably, there are more reported cases of failure. NOC is conducting the first-ever quantitative risk analysis of glider operations throughout Europe, gathering users’ experiences from 18 universities and institutions as part of a European-funded project: GROOM – Gliders for Research, Ocean Observation and Management. This will enable the development of multirisk models that take into account a wide range of operations.

Thirty years ago, robot submarines were ideas on drawing boards. Developments in AUV and glider technologies have created an exciting future for both industry and research—a future that is only limited by imagination.

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