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Marine Robot Fleets to Advance Ocean Exploration

The Squads of Adaptive Robots initiative aimed to demonstrate how large-scale survey and exploration missions can be achieved by going beyond the limitations of individual AUVs By Abi Wylie / 02 Nov 2023
Marine Robot Fleets to Advance Ocean Exploration
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The two-year collaborative research and development initiative Squads of Adaptive Robots (SoAR) has reached its conclusion, and will be able to tackle complex offshore tasks.

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.

This fleet of marine robots is part of a recently completed, groundbreaking project led by the developer of ecoSUB AUVs, Planet Ocean, and funded by Innovate UK, aiming to change approaches to ocean exploration.

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 autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Open-water trials successfully showcased co-ordinated missions designed, monitored and adapted in real-time by an intelligent “Autonomy Engine”. 

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 SoAR Communications Backbone, developed and released by the team at the NOC addresses the absence of standardised 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. Further details of the trial can be found on the ecoSUB Robotics website. 

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. 

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 project kicked off in September 2021 and culminated this summer with full system testing at Smart Sound Plymouth on England’s south coast.

Find out more about the trials on the ecoSUB Robotics website >>

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Posted by Abi Wylie Connect & Contact