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Cheaper and safer environmental monitoring

Underwater robots can monitor the environment in the ocean at a far lower cost and less risk with the help of drones and unmanned craft.

Olav Johan Øye Published: Updated:

Collecting environmental data in remote areas often involve a large vessel and a lot of crew. These are very expensive operations that may themselves impact the environment.

Underwater robots – miniature underwater gliders (MUG) – helped by drones and self-propelled vessels, can do this at a far lower cost, in a more environmentally friendly manner and without posing a risk to humans.

The idea is that the underwater robots are both dispatched and retrieved by drones. The batteries are charged on unmanned surface vessels using electricity from solar panels. This can also be done onshore in areas near the coast, or on an off-shore platform.

Illustrasjon av prosjektet

The robots look like small submarines and can monitor the environment using sensors. 

For example, they can measure chemical parameters, temperature and oxygen levels, and even detect toxic chemicals. This means that they are capable of locating harmful emissions. 

Robots do the work swiftly

Bilde av Alex Alcocer

‘Many robots mean that we can get the job done swiftly,’ explains Alex Alcocer, project manager of the research project ‘Ocean-Air synoptic operations using coordinated autonomous robotic SYStems and micro underwater gliders, OASYS’. 

The researchers aim to demonstrate the solution in the Trondheims Fjord. They will later test it in Svalbard, where the Norwegian Polar Institute will use it to explore a tidal glacier.

‘It will become commonplace not to have people carrying out surveys in the ocean, but fully autonomous systems that monitor and retrieve data, because it’s cheaper and safer,’ Alex Alcocer believes. 

Further developing existing equipment

There are nonetheless many challenges that need to be resolved to make such a system robust, for example in poor weather conditions.

‘We can’t solve all the problems in this project, but we can make some progress.’

They are not developing completely new equipment, but making as much use of the available solutions as possible. 

Unmanned surface vessels are already available. They have a long range, are made to be able to cross the Atlantic, and are robust. 

Drones must be modified before they can be used. Miniature underwater gliders are not available in the size needed for this project, but they will be developed at OsloMet during the project. They need to be small enough so that they can be operated by a drone.

The goal is for the micro underwater glider to cost around EUR 5,000. 

‘If we can achieve that, it has the potential to become a very interesting product,’ Alex believes.

The robots are currently very small and have limited possibilities of interacting, but we imagine that they can be used to monitor an area where subsea operations are taking place, to find out whether environmental regulations are complied with, or for environmental monitoring in polar areas.

The battery capacity will be limited due to their size. The goal is to get the underwater robots to operate for four days before they need to be retrieved and charged. Another goal is to develop a combined system involving a MUG, drones and unmanned vessels that can operate autonomously for several months.

Wave energy and solar panels

The unmanned craft use wave energy for propulsion, which Alex thinks is a good idea. 

‘Wave oscillations are used in a flapping system to achieve propulsion, rather than propellers, and with solar panels they can generate enough energy to charge the underwater robots and drones, as they use very little energy.’ 

Useful contribution from students

The project is now being prepared with the help of students at OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University. 

Two groups of bachelor’s students are working on prototypes of underwater robots – one group from the electronic engineering programme and one from the mechanical engineering programme – in addition to a European Project Semester (EPS) group, and the students presented their work at the Autonomy Day event on 3 May 2018. 

‘We need both electronic engineering and mechanical engineering skills to be able to do this, and this project allows students to take part in and potentially make a very useful contribution to research,’ says Alex.

The project also involves several other members of the academic staff at OsloMet, in addition to representatives of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the Norwegian Polar Institute and the company TriOS Mess- und Datentechnik, the latter of which is developing optical sensors for environmental monitoring.

Made possible by EU funding

Picture of Alfredo Carella.

Alex Alcocer and Alfredo Carella were given extensive freedom to develop the application for project funding. They  have received a lot of useful assistance from his colleagues from the electrical and mechanical engineering programmes, and the administration at OsloMet, especially the EU office. 

The money for the project comes from the ERA-NET Co-fund MarTERA call under Horizon 2020, which includes funds from many European countries, including Norway. 

‘We received strategy funds from OsloMet to buy the equipment we needed to develop the application, and that was the key to make this happen.’

The project will run for three years. It costs a total of EUR 1.9 million, and receives EUR 1,036,000 in financing. 

We know more about the Moon than about the sea

‘We need more knowledge about the sea. We know more about the Moon and the planet Mars than about what goes on at the bottom of the sea. We need far more observations and a lot more data. And the only way to achieve that is by using autonomous systems,’ says Alex Alcocer. 

OsloMet and its partners are not alone in the race to develop coordinated, fully automatic systems with drones – many universities, research centres and companies have discovered that this is important. 

But competition can be a good thing if the goal is to find good solutions.