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Marine Robot Fleets Set to Revolutionize Ocean Exploration

A fleet of marine robots that can tackle complex offshore tasks, part of a recently completed, ground-breaking project funded by Innovate UK, is poised to change approaches to ocean exploration.

Autonomous marine systems are being developed and deployed in increasing numbers. However, as maritime operations become ever more complex and expensive, and installed energy infrastructure increases in scale and distance from shore, there is a rapidly emerging need for more sophisticated multi-platform capabilities.

Squads of Adaptive Robots (SoAR), a 2-year collaborative research and development initiative was led by the developer of ecoSUB AUVs, Planet Ocean. The project kicked off in September 2021 and culminated this summer with full system testing at Smart Sound Plymouth on England’s south coast.

The SoAR team’s aim was to demonstrate how large-scale survey and exploration missions can be achieved by going beyond the limitations of individual AUVs. Industry partners Planet Ocean, Sonardyne International and HydroSurv worked alongside the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), Royal Holloway University and the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult to develop advanced AI-driven mission planning, communications protocols for fleet coordination and significant improvements in underwater navigation and communications technology.

Open-water trials successfully showcased co-ordinated missions designed, monitored and adapted in real-time by an intelligent “Autonomy Engine”. The trials involving several surface and underwater autonomous systems, with mission management conducted from a remote shore-based command and control facility. The trials simulated an offshore windfarm concession survey mission informed by a comprehensive business case analysis by the team at ORE Catapult.

SoAR has led to the introduction of several technological innovations, including advanced AI-driven mission planning, open-source communications protocols for heterogenous fleet coordination and a range of new and enhanced platform capabilities for both surface and sub-surface systems. The variety of small form factor robotic platforms involved in the project represented some of the best innovation in UK ocean robotics to date.

The SoAR concept is adaptable to various applications but strategically tailored to address the specific needs of the offshore wind sector, developing an approach that will offer new operating paradigms and substantial long term cost savings for offshore asset construction and maintenance compared to conventional methods.

The Technology

The fleet-level autonomy engine developed by Royal Holloway, University of London serves as the mission’s central nervous system, making real-time decisions and replanning when necessary due to factors such as inaccurate mission execution, vehicle faults, changing in the operating environment, or the addition and removal of stations. The division of labour enabled by this approach showed significant promise in productivity gains made possible by robotics and AI.

The SoAR Communications Backbone, developed and released by the team at the NOC addresses the absence of standardized interfaces and communication protocols. It acts as a central messaging system which enables interoperability between the fleet-level autonomy engine, each vehicle-specific command and control system, and any other sub-system requiring bi-directional communication. This is key to allowing the seamless introduction of different platforms and sub-systems in diverse combinations to suit a wide range of mission objectives.

For the trial, Sonardyne provided inter-medium communications via its AvTrak 6 Nano acoustic transceivers fitted to each AUV. This enabled simultaneous USBL tracking via a surface vessel and robust telemetry for AUV-to-vessel and AUV-to-AVU communications.

ecoSUB AUVs represent a significant advancement in affordable and versatile ocean science robotics. Equipped with the capability to deploy a wide range of advanced sensors including high-quality side scan sonar systems, DVL, acoustic communications and a range of science payloads, these budget-friendly AUVs cross various sectors and application use cases. A small swarm of four ecoSUB AUVs, each fitted with a Sonardyne AvTrak 6 Nano acoustic transceiver, played a crucial role in rapidly assessing the underwater environment and conducting preliminary evaluations to identify targets of interest.

Auto-Hover 1 (AH1), owned and operated by NOC, represents the state-of-the art in hover-capable AUV platforms. Equipped with six thrusters, AH1 is capable of exceptional precision in maintaining station and navigating vertically within the water column. With advanced sensing capabilities, and also fitted with an AvTrak transceiver, AH1 was dedicated to close inspection tasks, enabling intricate and comprehensive examination of identified targets.

HydroSurv’s innovative long-endurance USV, the REAV-60 was purpose designed and built for operations Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLoS). Central to its use case is versatility across a wide array of offshore survey and inspection needs, whilst aligning with incoming regulatory requirements.

Sonardyne’s REAV-60 USV ‘Decibel’ assumed a pivotal role, serving as a crucial communications gateway to the AUV swarm. It was fitted with an HPT 3000 transceiver, and running their well-established Ranger-2 software on its topside facilitating inter-medium communication and providing navigation support to the AUVs. Decibel was also equipped with various communications devices including 4G/LTE and Iridium satellite communication systems to enable communications between subsea, surface and the Autonomy Engine.

The deployed SoAR fleet was managed and control from HydroSurv’s shore-based Remote Operations Centre in Exeter, using 4G/LTE and Iridium communications.

SoAR received funding from the ‘Next Generation Subsea Technologies’ competition, a joint initiative supported by Innovate UK, the Net Zero Technology Centre and the Royal Navy.

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