If you ask me

Unmanned machines that can withstand conditions and perform activities too dangerous for humans are on the rise - well, sinking actually. And, as the carbon trading market matures should a framework for development be introduced? 

Measuring up to a low-carbon future

Despite the global recession, the carbon trading market grew last year by more than 80 per cent to $118bn. But are the conditions right to ensure this rapidly growing and vitally important market will be stable?

Market stability needs a consistent and acceptable means to quantify the commodity being traded. Inconsistent measurements, calculations and estimation protocols for greenhouse gases and avoidance provide a fragile basis for the emerging carbon market.

In addition, a lack of independent and consistent assessment of the low-carbon credentials of new technologies can also confuse buyers, slow product development, and potentially stop deployment. As a world-leading centre of excellence in applying highly accurate standards, measurement and science the UK's National Physical Laboratory has a vital role to play in addressing these concerns.

Current carbon emissions for reporting, trading and regulation are based on calculation or estimation. The detail of the scientific and technical underpinning of the schemes also varies greatly. At the current market price, a 1 per cent difference between actual and calculated emissions is equivalent to approximately $950m in the EU.

Until there is an international framework for measuring 'carbon', the market will be unstable. A lack of trust between nations over the basis on which national greenhouse gas inventories are calculated could de-rail a global agreement on climate change post-Kyoto.

The research community is examining emissions measurement, but further work is needed. This includes an understanding of, and agreement for, each sector on: the type of emissions that should be evaluated; whereabouts in the process they need to be measured; what techniques need to be used to gather the data; what the levels of uncertainty are; and whether they are acceptable.

The development of international measurement standards for some of this work is being led by NPL. The lab has recently proposed setting up a Centre for Carbon Metrology in conjunction with organisations like BSI Group and the Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment. This would work with government, business and academia to develop the scientific and technical tools and standards needed. It will ensure that the public sector, businesses and individuals have confidence in the data on which decisions are based and the market relies.

The Centre would focus on three areas: first, establishing a measurement and standards infrastructure to provide a solid foundation for carbon trading/pricing; secondly, providing independent performance assessment, calibration and validation of low-carbon technologies; and finally, bringing measurement expertise to climate data and modelling - reducing uncertainty in climate projections and enabling policy for climate change mitigation and adaptation to be placed on a firmer footing.

London has developed itself as the centre for carbon financing and the UK has an opportunity to become the home of carbon measurement. This is a global challenge that requires attention - it will deliver global environmental benefits and foster the development and diversification of the UK low-carbon economy.

Brian Bowsher, managing director, National Physical Laboratory

AUV pushes the boundaries

While remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) have been working successfully for many years, the challenge has been to build a vehicle that can carry out the same operations with limited or no input from above. While this still remains a long way off due to the problems of power consumption, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are finding their niche as survey machines.

While you always know an ROV is situated at the end of its umbilical cord, the AUV relies on its programmer to be in the right place for collection. There is also the problem of malfunction - if the craft surfaces after malfunctioning, it could be swept away before the operating vessel picks it up.

In 2005, a yellow AUV was lost off the west coast of Scotland and discovered by a fisherman who took the £500,000 vessel home and displayed it on his driveway. The Ministry of Defence originally claimed it wasn't theirs but later owned up and a special bottle of whisky called 'The Yellow Submarine' was created to mark the event.

However, AUV development is moving forward apace. The first fuel-cell-powered AUV - the Hugin 3000 - offers up to 60 hours' endurance with all its survey systems running.

More recently we have seen the AUV role change from just survey to surveillance and even exploration. Researchers at the University of Essex are developing a robotic fish that will analyse and monitor pollution. Autonomous robotic fish, which can function independently or as a team, will be equipped with chemical sensors to find pollutants in the water so they can analyse contaminants and produce a real-time 3D map, showing what concentrations of pollutants are present. They will be designed to adapt quickly to changes in the port environment, with advanced swarm intelligence techniques.

BAE Systems has launched its first unmanned autonomous submarine to combat the threat of explosive mines hidden in shallow coastal waters and protect world shipping.

The 50kg vessel, called Talisman L, uses high-definition forward and sideways-looking sonars, as well as a host of multi-view cameras. It has a high degree of manoeuvrability, can turn within its own length and is able to operate at depths of 100m for up to 12 hours. It has a top speed of more than five knots and can move in any direction.

May 2009 saw a new type of deep-sea robotic vehicle, Nereus, reach the deepest part of the world's ocean when it dived to 10,902m at the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean.

The dive makes Nereus the world's deepest-diving vehicle and ideally suited to explore the ocean's last frontiers. The unique hybrid unmanned vehicle is remotely operated by pilots aboard a surface ship via a lightweight, micro-thin, fibre-optic tether that allows Nereus to dive deep and be highly manoeuvrable. Nereus can also be switched into a free-swimming, autonomous vehicle.

The future is bright for AUVs, it just needs imagination to dream up new challenges for them.

Mark Langdon control and automation editor

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