The National Oceanography Centre’s expertise in developing robotics and autonomous systems – identified as one of the “eight great technologies” that will underpin future growth in the United Kingdom – is highlighted in a paper written by the Science Minister, David Willetts.
The paper, which was launched in a recent speech by Mr Willetts at the Policy Exchange think tank, outlined the role of government in supporting technological developments where the UK leads the world. These include robotic and autonomous systems, an area that has been earmarked for a multi-million pound investment over the next two years. The aim is to provide what the Minister called the “missing link” that translates innovation in the laboratory into real-world, technical applications.
In the field of robotic and autonomous systems, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), particularly through NOC, has pioneered the development of Marine Autonomous Systems (MAS) – most notably the long-range Autosub autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), sensor technologies and instrument payloads and demonstration, and the application of autonomous technologies for sea-floor mapping and ocean monitoring.
Mr Willetts highlighted several spectacular “world-first” AUV missions achieved by NOC working with its partners, including exploration beneath rapidly melting ice-shelves in the Artic and Antarctic, and the more recent discovery of the world’s deepest and hottest hydrothermal vents 5,000 metres beneath the ocean’s surface in the Cayman Trough.
The marine environment is critical to addressing many key challenges facing the UK in the 21st Century; however, until recently limitations of platforms and technology have restricted their ability to make measurements at the optimum spatial and temporal resolution required to underpin their understanding of this rapidly changing environment: their ability to forecast and manage it have consequently been hampered. Recent developments in MAS have now put them on the cusp of a revolution in how they measure the oceans and their living systems.
In April 2012, the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) set up the new Marine Autonomous and Robotics Systems (MARS) group with the aim that, by 2016, it will be recognised as the world leader in the integrated provision of autonomous vehicles for marine science. In parallel, a substantial capital investment of £3.3 million from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) enabled the expansion of this facility so that, by the end of 2013, it will operate over 17 different autonomous vehicles.
NERC has also partnered with the Technology Strategy Board and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory to run a £1 million Small Business Research Initiative to develop new unmanned surface vehicle concepts. Five companies have been awarded three-month, first-phase contracts to assess the viability of rugged, robust and reliable long-endurance marine unmanned surface vehicles.
NOC, working in collaboration with the wider UK marine science and business communities, is now preparing to play a central role in the new “Eight Great Technologies” initiative, with a remit to focus on the development of remote observation platforms. This will move systematic measurement of the oceans away from ships and onto a network of autonomous machines, combined with satellite monitoring systems.
As the Minister writes in his report, marine robotic systems such as Autosub “ultimately hold the promise of opening inaccessible regions of the deep sea and polar oceans, enabling for the first time major unmanned missions to Planet Ocean. “