Developing the Infrastructure for a World-Class Marine Robotics Fleet

A Case Study from the UK National Oceanography Centre

Russell B. Wynn and David White

Introduction

The rapid uptake of marine autonomous systems (MAS) by research institutes, offshore industry, and government agencies across the globe is raising the questions of how best to manage and operate these new technologies, and how to integrate them with existing observational tools such as ships and moorings. Here, we provide an overview of how the UK has focused investment and resources on a centralized MAS facility based at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC; Figure 1), and how this facility is being used to provide a “capability pathway” to industry and government partners who are also looking to invest in MAS fleets.

Figure 1. The marine autonomous systems infrastructure based at the UK National Oceanography Centre.

 

 

History

The National Oceanography Centre was established in 1995 and is owned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the main environmental science funding body in the UK. NOC employs ~560 staff across two sites in Southampton and Liverpool, and is widely regarded as one of the top six oceanographic institutes globally, particularly for integrated marine science and technology in the deep ocean. For example, NOC developed the Autosub autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) in the late 1990s that has been used for over 200 pioneering deep-ocean and under-ice missions.

In 2012, NERC transferred its MAS assets into the UK National Marine Equipment Pool (NMEP), and NOC was given the responsibility of running this new MAS capability alongside existing NMEP assets (including two ocean-going research vessels). This decision was partly in response to several UK research organizations purchasing new submarine gliders with NERC funds and operating them independently, which was potentially inefficient and hard to monitor. By placing new and existing MAS platforms within the NMEP, NERC ensured they would be available to the wider UK research community and that usage statistics could be monitored. NOC subsequently established the Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems (MARS) group within its National Marine Facilities (NMF) division to provide a focus for MAS development and operations, and to bring together the existing remotely operated vehicle (ROV), AUV, and submarine glider teams into one group.

 

A Focus for Investment

As a result of the recent global upsurge in MAS products and applications, the UK government recognized the potential for driving economic growth in this area. Consequently, the NMF-MARS facility at NOC is providing a focus for >£25M of capital investment in MAS platforms, sensors, and software in the period 2012–2021. The aim is to establish a world-leading MAS fleet that will both deliver cutting-edge technology to the UK research community, and provide opportunities for UK government and industry partners to exploit and uptake the technology. The NMF-MARS fleet currently comprises almost 50 individual platforms (Figure 1), making it the largest MAS research fleet in Europe. It includes more than 30 submarine gliders, four unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), two tethered deep-ocean ROVs, and the Autosub family of AUVs. This fleet is supported by a rapidly growing team of ~40 development and operations engineers.

Although NOC now provides a focus for UK MAS development and operations, it should be noted that additional MAS assets (mostly submarine gliders) are still operated by research partners at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), and the University of East Anglia (UEA). NOC also hosts a rapidly expanding Ocean Technology and Engineering (OTE) group that has world-​leading expertise in development of miniaturized biogeochemical sensors (Figure 1). Together with other UK research organizations, this group is producing a pipeline of innovative sensors that are typically platform-agnostic and can therefore be deployed across the NMF-MARS fleet.

 

Supporting the UK Research Community

Any UK researcher can apply to access NMEP assets for specific projects, including NMF-MARS vehicles and associated technical support. Once an application is submitted and the project funded (either by NERC or another funding body), the principal investigator (PI) will work with the NERC program group to define and schedule the mission. This “bidding” process originally revolved around requests for ship time and associated ship-deployed vehicles, but has evolved rapidly as researchers are increasingly requesting smaller MAS platforms that can be deployed from shore or from small vessels. The PI is expected to pay for user costs from their funding source, for example, glider batteries or Iridium data transfer, but all other costs (including NMF-MARS staff resources) are paid for centrally by NERC as part of an annual allocation. NMF-MARS supports all research projects irrespective of their funding source, but NERC- and EU-funded science projects are given highest priority in the program (combined these account for >90% of applications).

The level of operational support provided to researchers by NMF-MARS varies between projects, with less-experienced users requiring the full spectrum of support from vehicle setup through to deployment/recovery, piloting, and data transfer. NMF-MARS also provides development support to the community, through design and build of new AUV platforms, for example, Autosub Long Range (aka “Boaty McBoatface”) and integration of novel sensors onto vehicles to meet specific project requirements. In addition, the NOC site at Liverpool hosts the British Oceanographic Data Centre (BODC; Figure 1), which provides a centralized, secure, and long-term repository for all data collected using NMF-MARS assets, and ensures it is subsequently available to the UK end-user community for future use.

 

Supporting UK Government and Industry

To ensure that the significant levels of capital investment in the NMF-MARS fleet generate economic benefit for UK industry and government, NOC built a £3M Marine Robotics Innovation Centre (MRIC; Figure 1) that provides a hub for MAS activity in the UK and brings together NOC engineers and scientists with industry partners. This facility houses the NMF-MARS fleet, engineers, and associated state-of-the-art workshops (including testing facilities, ballasting tanks, and vehicle storage/display areas; Figure 2), and also provides desk space for companies engaged in MAS; these range from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) such as ASV and Planet Ocean, to large multi­national corporations such as BP and Boeing.

Figure 2. The submarine glider storage and ballasting area within the Marine Robotics Innovation Centre.

 

Demonstrator Missions and Showcases

Since 2014, NOC has coordinated a series of annual high-​profile demonstrator missions (Marine Autonomous Systems in Support of Marine Observations, or MASSMO), in order to trial and demonstrate new MAS technologies to research, government, and industry end users. These missions have evolved from deployment of new USVs to test their robustness in an open-ocean environment (MASSMO1 and 2; Figure 1), to large-scale multivehicle missions in hostile offshore environments for periods of up to two weeks, involving a wide range of partners (MASSMO3 and 4; Figure 3). The MASSMO missions have also enabled the command-and-control (C2) infrastructure for MAS fleets to be developed and tested in an operational setting, including the MARS portal where live vehicle positions and incoming real-time data can be viewed on top of auxiliary data layers to support operational decision-making (e.g., bathymetry, weather, tidal prediction models, satellite observations, AIS vessel information).

The MASSMO missions have generated significant media exposure and, together with the recent pioneering deep-ocean missions of “Boaty,” have successfully highlighted the positive environmental benefits of MAS to the general public. NOC also convenes an annual Marine Autonomy and Technology Showcase (MATS), which is a forum for MAS developers, operators, and end users to exchange knowledge and gain access to the latest innovations.

Figure 3. Organogram showing the range of partners in Marine Autonomous Systems in Support of Marine Observations 4 (MASSMO4), including funding and coordinating bodies, industry, and operational partners, and research and data management organizations.

 

Training the Next Generation

To ensure a continued talent pipeline for the expanding NMF-MARS operation (and MRIC partners and other UK industry MAS operators), NERC has invested in a new PhD training program called NEXUSS (Next Generation Unmanned Systems Science). This program will see up to 50 PhD students graduate in the period 2020–2022, each with hands-on experience of MAS development, operations, and science application. Knowledge transfer is also realized through direct hands-on training of government and industry partners, for example, Royal Navy glider pilots during MASSMO missions (Figure 1).

 

Conclusions

Although there was, understandably, some initial resistance to a centralized MAS facility from other established MAS operators in the UK, there is no doubt that development of NMF-MARS has provided a focus and stimulus for ongoing UK government capital investment that has benefited the whole of NERC. The housing of the NMF-MARS fleet within a state-of-the-art and visitor-friendly facility at MRIC also provides an efficient and inspiring workplace, and allows different NMF-MARS teams (ROV, AUV, USV/glider) and MRIC industry partners to regularly interact and share experiences and ideas.

New and experienced researchers alike now benefit from access to a stable, sustainable, cutting-edge MAS fleet that is resilient to short-term funding irregularities, occasional vehicle loss, and staff turnover, and that benefits from development of novel sensors by NOC-OTE and partners. Although overheads (and therefore overall costs) are higher than other smaller facilities, this is offset against access to highly trained engineers and pilots and higher platform reliability.

 

Authors

Russell B. Wynn, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, UK, rbw1@noc.ac.uk

David White, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, UK, dwh@noc.ac.uk