NERC Capital Programme - Oceanids

New and innovative autonomous vehicles being developed at the NOC are pushing the boundaries of how we explore our oceans. With capabilities allowing us to reach new depths, travel under ice, and collect data in some of the most environmentally hostile environments, autonomous vehicles are the future of marine science. 

With so many unanswered questions about the physical, chemical and biological processes in our oceans, these #oceanrobots could help provide data to meet the big environmental challenges facing our Earth.

To ensure the UK remains at the forefront of global marine science and technology innovation, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has made a £10m investment in marine robotics, focussed at the NOC.

Oceanids includes development of a new 1500m depth-rated Autosub Long Range (ALR1500) and a new 6000m depth-rated autonomous underwater vehicle (Autosub6000 Mk2). This will support future under-ice and deep-ocean science, including a number of upcoming major marine research programmes. Engineers at the NOC will also develop new command-and-control systems for efficient Marine Autonomous System (MAS) fleet management.

NERC are additionally investing up to £5m for novel sensor development, suitable for deployment on various submarine and surface platforms including the new MAS platforms developed through Oceanids . New equipment will also be procured to support the NERC–EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in ‘Smart and Autonomous Observing Systems’, called NEXUSS – ‘NEXt generation Unmanned System Science'.

This investment will provide unprecedented capability in ocean observing for all of the UK marine science community, allowing a persistent presence in hostile, previously inaccessible environments, and providing a significant new capacity to tackle some fundamental global environmental science questions. 

Professor Duncan Wingham, Chief Executive of NERC:

"This investment will help develop ambitious new technologies for researching the oceans and maintain the UK’s world-class status in autonomous marine platforms. It will also support specialised skills and training in this exciting area, producing the expert scientists, engineers and technologists who will carry out innovative marine science in the decades to come."

Professor Ed Hill, Executive Director of the NOC:

“We see this investment as a further endorsement by NERC of the strength, excellence, and ambition of UK marine science, and this will see the UK leading new capabilities in developing new ocean observing technologies. This will give unprecedented opportunity to observe complex biogeochemical and biological processes and do so in very difficult and hostile environments including extended endurance beneath the Arctic Ocean sea-ice and Antarctic ice shelves which are increasingly seen as critical environments in understanding global climate change. The NOC will be working with the wider marine science community to prioritise the investment in new autonomous platforms and marine sensor development over the five-year period.”

Current technology developments undertaken by the NOC as part of Oceanids are detailed below.
 

The development of Autosub6000 Mk2 at the NOC will provide the UK science community with a next generation, ship-launched, high-power, deep-diving Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV).

The new Autosub6000 Mk2 will be designed so that it can operate from a range of research vessels including the UK’s RRS James Cook, RRS Discovery and the new Polar Research vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough. 

Equipped with state-of-the art sonars and camera systems to enable scientists to create detailed maps and establish habitat characteristics of the seafloor, the new AUV will also have under-ice navigation capabilities so it can operate underneath vast areas of sea ice or glaciers. The systems on board will be designed to withstand pressure at 6000m, giving the vehicle the potential to explore over 90% of the ocean floor.

The new AUV will build on the successes of the current Autosub3 and Autosub6000 vehicles and exploit new Marine Autonomous Systems (MAS) technologies being developed in collaboration with industry partners at the NOC’s Marine Robotics Innovation Centre.
 

Autosub Long Range (ALR) 1500 will be our longest range AUV to date. With increased endurance and payload capacity, ALR1500 will be optimised for surveying the continental shelf and upper slope, with the potential to complete a full trans-Arctic mission, under ice.

The original ALR (ALR6000) is an AUV capable of deployments of thousands of kilometres and lasting several months (depending upon sensor power drain and speed) with a maximum depth excursion of 6000m. For many application areas, such as measurements in shallow water, the 6000m depth rating of the original ALR is not required, as measurements are concentrated in the upper water column. This gives an opportunity to design and manufacture a new version of the ALR with a shallower depth-rated pressure vessel. 

This lower depth-rated pressure vessel will be designed to deliver a greater buoyancy and payload capacity, which can accommodate a battery pack 2.5 times larger than the ALR6000. This battery configuration will enable enough power for deployments with longer ranges, higher speeds, and the integration of more power-hungry sensors or navigation systems.
 

The Command and Control (C2) project will simplify the operation of the Marine Autonomous Systems (MAS) fleet operated by the NOC, and will automate the processing and archiving of the near real-time data acquired by the vehicles within the National Marine Equipment Pool and, the new MAS platforms being developed through Oceanids.

The C2 system will provide a unified and consistent infrastructure to control multiple unmanned long-range vehicles operated by the NOC, and will support the automated transfer and archiving of near real-time science data collected by the vehicles into the British Oceanographic Data Centre.

The C2 project will further develop the infrastructure to allow piloting automation with the overall aim to maximize the quality of data collected, enhance the safety of the platforms and increase the number of MAS vehicles that can be operated in the water at any one time.

With incremental upgrades, the C2 infrastructure is being made available to the UK science community throughout the life of the project. These upgrades will be seamlessly integrated into the existing MARS piloting portal.
 

As part of Oceanids, new equipment will be procured to support the NERC–EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in ‘Smart and Autonomous Observing Systems’, called NEXUSS – ‘NEXt generation Unmanned System Science'.