December 22, 2015      

Marine autonomous systems have the potential to replace or augment shipping for subsea inspection and other challenging offshore applications. The global market is currently estimated to be worth £9 billion ($13.35 billion), and the U.K. and Ireland are emerging as early global leaders in the field, particularly through the ongoing improvement of technology and the widening of applications.

Companies specializing in marine autonomous systems (MAS) include MOST Autonomous Vehicles Ltd., ASV, Sonardyne International Ltd., and SeeByte Ltd.

Thanks to them and research centers such as the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton and the Mobile & Marine Robotics Research Centre (MMRRC) at the University of Limerick, there has been a recent focus on the development of novel unmanned surface vehicles, and the deployment and control of multiple vehicle types in robot fleets.

The U.K. also has particular strength in the development and production of environmental sensors, such as passive acoustic monitors for cetaceans and biogeochemical sensors to measure water quality. These sensors can be integrated into a wide range of autonomous platforms.

British and Irish researchers have maintained leadership in marine robotics.

U.K. researchers and companies have developed drones for undersea monitoring.

The U.K. has benefited from “particularly strong strategic partnerships” among industry, government, and innovators that “recognise the opportunity and potential revenue streams that are driving this change,” explained Russell Wynn, chief scientist for marine autonomous and robotic systems at the NOC.

These partnerships provide a “catalyst for sharing ideas” that can build on current marine robotics research to meet future market demand, he added.

“The NOC operates one of the largest and most capable MAS fleets in the world and therefore has an important role in sharing resources and experience with other partners in proof-of-concept deployments,” Wynn said.

“For example, a NOC-led MAS deployment off the southwest U.K. in autumn 2014 involved over 20 partners drawn from the research, defense, policy, and industry sectors, and saw five vehicles bristling with innovative sensors operating together as a robot fleet,” he added.

Encouraging innovation

The long-term prospects for the U.K. marine robotics sector were boosted further at the end of November, when the Marine Robotics Innovation Centre (MRIC) was opened in Southampton. The long-term vision for the £3 million ($4.45 million) research, development, and commercialization center is to make the U.K. a global innovation hub for developing the next generation of marine drones.

“Innovators will converge within the center to develop and commercialize emerging MAS technologies supported by the NOC, and in the process contribute to this new industry for the country and internationally,” said Adam Schink, manager at the MRIC.

However, to maintain its strong position in the marine robotics sector, Schink asserted that the U.K. must develop more robust battery systems — for example, via ongoing collaboration with companies like Oxis Energy Ltd. and Steatite Ltd.

Kevin Forshaw at the MRIC opening

NOC Associate Director Kevin Forshaw predicts that robots will coordinate between air, land, and sea for marine observation.

Roboticists must also work to overcome regulatory uncertainty, both in the U.K. and internationally.

“In the U.K., we are addressing this challenge through the MAS Regulatory Working Group, which brings together industry, defense, and research stakeholders with relevant authorities like the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to establish an appropriate regulatory framework,” Schink said.

Looking ahead, Kevin Forshaw, associate director of enterprise and innovation at the NOC, expects greater collaboration between current and future end users of marine autonomous systems.

“Global trends show a continued consortium-type model, where diverse backgrounds come together to solve a problem and create a solution, not only locally but internationally,” he said. “This new model encourages nontraditional approaches to identify innovative ideas, leverage finances, and mobilize new talent.”

“Technologically, to drive down operating costs, there will be a move towards long-endurance systems that can be launched and recovered from or close to shore, such as the NOC Autosub Long Range vehicle, and deployment of low-cost platforms from air or surface platforms to provide a rapid response capability,” Forshaw said.

“There will also be an increasing focus on integration of multiple MAS assets — aerial, surface and submarine — into wider marine observing systems that take advantage of big data via the cloud for things like satellite images and weather forecasts,” he added.