Innovation of Technology

Technology for Ocean Measurements

In the next five years, we aim to take significant steps in the advancement of our knowledge concerning the innovation of technology for continuous autonomous ocean measurement

The challenge

The oceans cover about 71% of the earth’s surface and represented over 99% of its habitable volume – the biosphere. Measuring the physics, chemistry and biology of these vast, corrosive, stormy, deep environments, which experience wide ranges of depth (pressure), temperature and biological activity, is extremely challenging. Whilst satellites measure the ocean surface water temperature, waves, tides, meteorology, colour and other imaged parameters, the subsurface requires direct sampling and measurement. Even with a globally cooperating fleet of highly capable research ships we can take measurements in only a few locations: leaving tens to hundreds of nautical miles and frequently years between measurements. Yet many ocean processes occur much more rapidly and over shorter distances. The oceans are largely under-sampled. To combat this lack of data, engineers have developed a number of different robotic and autonomous (require no human operator) measurement systems that include: a platform i.e. a vehicle, float or static observatory, often with their own communication systems; and remotely operated samplers, instruments or sensors. Since these can be deployed in number, and some can stay at sea for months or years, their persistent presence and spatial coverage addresses ocean under-sampling. The challenge is to design and manufacture robust autonomous measurement systems able to make measurements of complex ocean physics, chemistry and biology accurately and without human intervention in some of the world’s harshest environments. Many of these systems are deployed for months or years, some for up to ten years.

Our Science and Technology

The NOC has been leading the development of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (robot submarines), and systems for communicating data from the deep sea for nearly three decades. This currently includes the development of long range (6000km) deep diving (6000m) vehicles, and advanced command and control systems that enable a single operator to safely and efficiently pilot large numbers of autonomous vehicles for science missions. We also have a large program developing new sensors suitable for autonomous observation systems that can make accurate measurements of complex chemical and biological parameters. These have been developed to be low cost and extremely robust so that they can be deployed widely even on relatively cheap platforms, such as profiling (Argo) floats or even in tags placed on marine animals . We have operational sensors for nutrients, such as nitrate and phosphate, and also ocean ‘carbonate system’ parameters such as pH. A further fifteen different sensors are in development, including those aimed at addressing low cost precision salinity and oxygen measurements, micro-biology, primary production, pollutants and micronutrients. The NOC has also recently stimulated innovation in UK companies to produce two new autonomous surface vehicles (robot boats).

The benefit to society

The primary benefit from our work is the improved management and health of our marine environment as a result of informed sustainable management decisions based on the data the autonomous observation systems collect. A better managed ocean environment supports improved fisheries and resources for aquaculture, marine energy and mineral resources. Perhaps most importantly, improved data also improves our prediction of climate change and weather forecasting. Furthermore, many of the technologies we have developed will shortly be released as commercial products on the open market through partnerships with companies. This has a benefit to users as they gain access to our technologies and comprehensive servicing and support from a commercial supplier. This enables far more users than we could support at the research level and also returns income to the UK and the NOC helping us to continue this work.