Tristan da Cunha, the most remote island, South Atlantic Ocean. Volcano covered with clouds and seagull, or gannet on foreground.

Sea-going robot designed to deploy equipment in remote oceans

Image credit: Dmitry Malov - Dreamstime

A UK company and a researcher at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have designed a sea-going robot to deploy research equipment in remote and inaccessible ocean locations.

The new vessel was developed by AutoNaut, a Chichester-based firm that designs and builds wave-propelled unmanned surface vessels (USV). The robot has been specially adapted to carry and release an underwater Seaglider. These gliders carry a range of sensors to collect data for research on ocean processes that are important for the climate.

These Seagliders are approximately the same size as a human diver, but can reach depths of up to 1,000m and travel the ocean by themselves for months on end, covering thousands of kilometres. However, they are difficult to launch inshore and usually have to be deployed from ships, which can make timing the release of the glider tricky.

It can also take a long time, and a lot of battery life, for the gliders to reach remote study sites. Furthermore, other locations can be dangerous to access due to piracy or political tensions – for example, the ongoing Spratly Islands territorial dispute between China and the Philippines, among other countries.

The 5m-long AutoNaut can be deployed from a beach or a ship and it can wait in position until the Seaglider is ready to be released by remote pilots.

The USV is propelled by the motion of the waves and carries a range of sensors for meteorology and/or oceanography, including atmospheric pressure, air temperature and humidity, wind speed and sea-surface temperature.

Furthermore, its systems and sensors are powered by solar panels and it is designed to withstand heavy seas, is self-righting (i.e. it can right itself if capsized) and piloted using satellite communication.

Professor Karen Heywood with the Caravela vessel

Professor Karen Heywood with the Caravela vessel

Image credit: University of East Anglia (UEA)

The new vessel has been named ‘Caravela’ by Professor Karen Heywood of UEA’s Centre for Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, who came up with the idea of having a robot that could deploy the Seaglider. It is named after the Portuguese man-o’-war – a colony of creatures working together, often incorrectly called a jellyfish – which drifts with surface currents.

This month, Caravela will be tested in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Barbados, as part of a major international experiment to track the formation of clouds and their role in the climate system. Launched from shore, Caravela will make her way to an ocean area to the east of Barbados, known as Tradewinds Alley.

The UEA team will then use combined Caravela and glider measurements to understand how the ocean temperatures affect the layer of air above and how the winds and sunshine affect the top tens of metres of the ocean.

“We are really excited to have worked with AutoNaut UK on the development of Caravela. We can now send a Seaglider into the middle of an ocean basin without having to use a ship and where it is too dangerous to send one,” said Professor Heywood.

“This means we can reserve the glider battery for the science, so it will have longer endurance. It also gives us the ability to more accurately decide when to release the glider, for example ahead of the spring bloom or an extreme weather event.”

She added: “Having sensors on both the AutoNaut and the Seaglider means we’ll get simultaneous meteorological and oceanographic measurements, giving us a more detailed picture of conditions at the study site and helping to further our understanding of factors affecting our climate.”

Pete Bromley, AutoNaut’s managing director, added: “It’s been a fantastic and rewarding challenge working with Karen and her world-class team at UEA. Deploying an ocean robot on an ocean robot is ground-breaking science. We wish them all the best on this next mission and look forward to future collaborations.”

The long-term aim is to use Caravela in the Antarctic and anywhere else that is remote or difficult to access.

In related sea-faring news, Chinese aquatic technology firm RoboSea demonstrated its autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) this week at CES 2020. Known as Robo-Shark, the AUV is fully customisable and can carry nearly every camera, communication or sensor rigs.

The vehicle also features a silent tail-fin propulsion system, which the developers argue transforms the robotic fish into a stealthy surveillance machine. It also has a rating of 4 on the wind and wave resistance scale, meaning it can maintain normal function through a moderate to strong breeze and small to medium waves, sometimes called ‘white horses.’

Furthermore, it can travel up to 2km (6,500ft) at a depth of up to 300m (984ft) and is powered by a 24Ah lithium battery that provides two hours of operating time.

The Robo-Shark (pictured above) is an autonomous underwater vehicle that can travel at speeds of up to 10 knots at depths of up to 6,500 feet

The Robo-Shark (pictured above) is an autonomous underwater vehicle that can travel at speeds of up to 10 knots at depths of up to 6,500 feet

Image credit: Reuters

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