A fleet of seven robotic vehicles were launched into the ocean off southwest England this week, in the most ambitious project of its kind in Europe. The vehicles are aiming to travel up to 300 miles over the next 20 days, and will be collecting scientific data about ocean processes and marine life.
Correlated by the National Oceanography Centre, the exercise includes battery-powered submarine gliders and novel surface vehicles that are powered by wind, wave and solar energy. All of the vehicles are unmanned, so the only communication with the fleet will be via satellite.
The vehicles will cross a series of physical boundaries in the ocean during their three-week journey. These boundaries are called fronts, and they separate water masses of different properties. The targeted fronts off southwest UK provide ideal conditions for abundant plankton growth, which in turn can attract large numbers of fish, seabirds, dolphins and basking sharks.
The deployed vehicles are carrying a range of instruments for observing these animals. As well as measuring the temperature of the water and the weather conditions at the ocean surface, they can detect the density of plankton in the water; listen for clicks and whistles of dolphins and porpoises, and image seabirds using surface cameras. These data will help scientists map the distribution of the fronts and their associated fauna.
NOC’s Dr Russell Wynn is scientific co-ordinator of the exercise, while Dr Maaten Furlong is responsible for managing many of the vehicles.
The exercise has brought together a wide range of partners, including scientists and engineers from research institutes and universities, commercial companies, government agencies, and also the UK Met Office and Royal Navy.
A control centre has been set up for the duration of the project at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, although some of the vehicles will be operated by project partners from as far afield as California.
Satellite maps of the region are being provided by Plymouth Marine Laboratory, which provides an indication of the location of the targeted fronts. Tidal data from National Oceanography Centre, and weather data provided by Royal Navy operations, are also vital when planning vehicle tracks and activities.
NOC has been working with two UK companies, MOST and ASV, to design and build two of the robotic surface vehicles that harvest energy from their environment. The MOST vehicle ‘Autonaut’ uses wave and solar power, while ASV vehicle ‘C-Enduro’ uses wind and solar power. Both have a conventional back-up power source.
Dr Wynn commented: “It is great to be able to work with and support UK business in development of this new technology, which is clean, green and quiet. Marine robotic vehicles have a wide and growing range of applications, from science to defence, policy and marine operations. By demonstrating the capability of the new vehicles to collect high-quality data as part of a real science mission, we can support the companies in promoting their new products to potential customers in the UK and overseas.”