Creating a bustling hub of AUV activity

At the end of June, the infamous Boaty McBoatface, the latest type of autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) developed by the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), returned onboard the RRS James Clark Ross from its first scientific deployment in the Southern Ocean. The Autosub Long Range vehicle collected data on temperature, speed of water flow and underwater turbulence rates of the Orkney Passage, which is around 4,000m deep and roughly 500 miles from Antarctica. 

‘Boaty’ has received a great deal of publicity – both throughout the UK and internationally – following the name winning an online public vote which went viral when the Natural Environment Research Council asked for names for the UK’s new polar research vessel. Whilst the ship has been given the more appropriate title of the second-place winner, Sir David Attenborough, the Boaty McBoatface name lives on in the guise of a little autonomous yellow submarine. Daniel Barnes spoke with Professor Russell B Wynn, Chief Scientist, NOC Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems (MARS), about the growing influence of AUVs.

Professor Russell B Wynn, Chief Scientist, NOC Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems (MARS)Professor Russell B Wynn, Chief Scientist, NOC Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems (MARS)

Prof Wynn, please can you briefly summarise the role of the NOC for our readers? 

Firstly Daniel, good science – and particularly good marine science – has always been underpinned by developments in technology. 

The NOC has a long pedigree of developing innovative technology and that includes autonomous yellow submarines such as the new Autosub Long Range vehicles. We have also developed in-house innovative sensors that make new measurements, which can be integrated on these autonomous platforms. 

The developments in technology that we produce go into the National Marine Equipment Pool, and therefore benefit the whole UK science community. Any scientist in any university can bid in a research grant proposal to use those facilities. Those technologies therefore support and underpin the whole of the UK science community and helps to ensure it stays at the cutting edge. 

At the moment, we are putting a lot of effort and focus into the development of marine autonomy, robotic vehicles and sensors because it’s an area where we have a lot of strength and expertise in addition to there being plenty of new opportunities to work on these developments with industry.

Boaty McBoatface has recently returned from the Antarctic where the Autosub Long Range, under the watch of NOC engineers and scientists from the University of Southampton and British Antarctic Survey, collected some pretty useful scientific data. How successful was its first Antarctic deployment?

‘Boaty’ provided us a really good opportunity to promote some of the engineering work that we do here at NOC. It was designed and built by our engineers, and it’s been a really good way of conveying some of the science that we are doing to the general public. Although ‘Boaty’ didn’t work perfectly 100% of the time - it is new technology after all - when it did work it enabled the team to make measurements in a different way than they could have done using a ship, or indeed any other technology.

‘Boaty’ has really captured the imagination of the public, hasn’t it? How is the NOC ensuring it can capitalise on this added exposure? 

We are channelling social media to get the message across about understanding the oceans, about using new technology, and also about giving the younger generation a bit of inspiration. Maritime engineering in this country is innovative, it’s strong, it’s fun, and it’s a good career path, as it is a big growth area.

Boat McBoatfaceAs an organisation, it’s in our interest to try and inspire the younger generation, and to explore whether we can attract the next generation of talented engineers to work in marine robotics, be this through an academic route or through apprenticeships. Maritime engineering is growing; it’s a strong industry that we hope to promote to get the best talent. 

We also look to highlight that in the main the technology is British built and designed, so ‘Boaty’ is a good example of maritime engineering and of our strengths in that area.

Why do you think ‘Boaty’, long after the media storm that surrounded its name in the first place has died down, continues to capture the imagination of the public? 

I think the British are quite unusual and rather unique, in that we warm to a plucky loser. 

For instance, we like the idea of something roaming around on a planet that has been built by a load of whacky British scientists, like the Beagle 2. Even if it doesn’t quite work, we celebrate it anyway. 

The British public have warmed very much to the idea that we are sending this little yellow vehicle to the deepest parts of the ocean or under the ice; that we could lose it at any time or it could be destroyed by the pressure helps us to get that message across.

The fact that ‘Boaty’ is working and already generating some good science, and hopefully will continue to be a success story, is great.

Can you provide us with a snapshot of the current NOC organisation?  

The NOC currently has around 520 research scientists and staff across our two sites – Southampton and Liverpool – as well as the research ships RRS Discovery and RRS James Cook, which operate out of Southampton. We have the National Marine Equipment Pool, and the Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems (MARS) facility, also in Southampton, forms part of that; it is Europe’s biggest centralised scientific equipment pool. We also have other resources such as the National Oceanographic Library, the British Oceanographic Data Centre, the British Ocean Sediment Core Research Facility and the Discovery Collections in which all the interesting deep-sea animals are preserved for years to come. 

At both sites, we have very good relationships with each respective university. At Southampton, one of the ways in which we glue the NOC science community together with the University of Southampton’s science community is that we have a graduate school of PhD students which is over 200 strong. 

It is, quite possibly, the biggest PhD programme in marine science in Europe. That is really the heartbeat of the organisation. The real guts of the science at NOC is done by the PhD students and to some extent by Masters’ project students. 

There’s a really good mechanism to bring the two different organisations together, who ultimately have different owners and sometimes different objectives: having that shared PhD student programme has been a real success.

How many of the staff at NOC are currently working under the MARS program?

The MARS program is made up of about 40 staff at the moment. That includes development and operational engineers. 

That team has grown quite quickly. We have had about £25 million of UK government capital investment over the current decade. This is part of the technology initiative, and now it is part of what’s called the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund within the UK government. 

Doc TestThe idea is that because the government has invested in that fleet, the expectation is that we will use that fleet not only to do some great science, but also to work with industry to help build confidence in the ambitious technologies we are developing. By having a big fleet and operating it, and by having those two decades of experience, we can work with our industry partners and support them in helping them grow and develop.

What organisations have utilised your unmanned systems to date? 

We are finding that a lot of organisations can see the long-term benefit of unmanned systems, in terms of cost and reduced risk to people in the challenging maritime environment, but in the current economic climate, they don’t necessarily have the capital funding to invest in a big fleet. 

Therefore they are using our fleet, expertise and knowledge to gain confidence in the concept by partnering with us on our missions, seeing how we are using these vehicles and what we are doing with them. As a result, that is helping inform their strategy, as to how they transition from manned ships to unmanned systems in the future.

That could be anyone from the Royal Navy, to Defra (Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs), to UK companies involved in offshore oil and gas, deep-sea mining or marine renewables.

The aim of UK government is that we use that capital investment to help grow the whole enterprise around marine robotics in the UK, and ultimately, we support the export of that expertise and products to the global market in the future.

Part of this ongoing capital investment, was the creation of the £3 million Marine Robotics Innovation Centre, based at NOC in Southampton. Has it been a success so far?

The Innovation Centre was opened in November 2015 and it has got off to a flying start. We already have 22 companies who have joined as Associate or Strategic Partners.

The idea of the centre was to bring together large, major energy and defence companies, along with smaller companies that are making innovative products in marine robotics, and get them to work all under one roof. The idea being these companies can reap the benefit of working with our experienced engineers, operators and scientists at the NOC. We would also get access to innovative technology that was being developed by those companies in joint projects.

We have created what we call “the Hub” which is the centre’s main workspace, specially designed to be adaptable and multi-functional. Some companies have a desk space in the Hub and some of the smaller companies like ASV, who build unmanned surface vehicles, and Planet Ocean, who sell a whole range of oceanographic products, have physical office space. 

We also have some of the big players like BP and Shell, plus some of the big defence primes who are Associate Members; they use the Innovation Centre as an opportunity to get access to the latest developments and expertise which we have in NOC and with our partners.

We have already generated several million pounds of new funding by partnering with Innovation Centre companies and by putting in bids to develop smart marine robotic systems. The centre is looking pretty full already. 

Downstairs, in the workshops, is where we host all of the vehicles. We’ve got unmanned surface vehicles, submarine gliders, autonomous underwater vehicles (the ubiquitous yellow submarines which ‘Boaty’ is of course a part of), and the tethered remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). Upstairs, we have the office space and the operations room, which is where all of the companies and the engineers are based.

It sounds like an exciting industry to be in right now?

It is. It’s nice waking up in the morning knowing that some of the work I’m going to do is helping to solve problems in the natural world and for people, and supporting UK growth.

We have been involved in programs over the last couple of years which have resulted in brand new unmanned vehicles being developed. A couple of years ago, we worked with two local companies, Autonaut and ASV – both based here on the South Coast. Together with our input, supported by the UK government, they both built completely new types of unmanned surface vehicles that are now being used for science, and are available for sale to anyone in the world. That’s really quite rewarding when you are involved in the gestation of a project, and you see the innovative product coming out of there.

One of them, the vehicle built by ASV, was successfully deployed in an NOC-led defence-funded project earlier this year. We launched the vehicle from Orkney, and it went 180km out into the Faroe-Shetland Channel, into deep water in the middle of the ocean on its own. It collected data over a week in partnership with a number of other unmanned vehicles and a couple of ships, then returned all the way back to Orkney on its own. It travelled over 500km over the two weeks and collected camera data, data on echo locating marine mammals and data on the physical environment. It’s incredible that this vehicle was designed, built and made in partnership with this local company down the road in Porchester over the period of just three years.

What are currently the biggest challenges you and your NOC colleagues have to deal with?

One of the main challenges is practical; we are having to be very agile in responding to new funding opportunities. We have become an organisation that is now predominantly funded by external income sources, and those sources are changing on a year-to-year basis, because of the changing global and UK political situation. 

Scientists today have to be very multi-disciplinary, and we have to be very open to working with different sectors and with unconventional funding streams. Every scientist is having to face that challenge and adapt quite quickly; we need new skills. The new generation of scientists coming up have to be just as comfortable wearing a business suit as they are wearing a lab coat. 

Secondly, we are seeing increasing demands from partners in government, industry and in the research community to get data in more detail, covering more areas and in real time, so that they can make decisions based on that data. 

That is a real challenge, because we only have two ships that we operate at the NOC. We have a few others in the UK research community generally, but those ships can only be in one place at any one time, and they can only cover a tiny fraction of the ocean.

Overall, we are looking towards developing a network of observing systems that will enable us to tackle these big problems that we are facing in the ocean; to cover more area, and cover those areas at higher temporal resolution, on a finer timescale. That network of systems is a really big thing at the moment. A major task is how do we get models, observations, remote sensing and robotic platforms all working together to give us the information that we need? I think organisations like the NOC are only going to become even more relevant with the passage of time.