World’s First Long-Range Autonomous Research Vessel
Set to usher in a new era for net-zero oceanography and advanced international marine research, Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) has revealed designs for the world’s first long-range autonomous research vessel.
Supported by seed funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the sleek, futuristic-looking and fully unmanned Oceanus has been designed as a self-righting, lightweight, monohulled autonomous vessel capable of carrying an array of monitoring sensors to collect data for research into critical areas such as climate change, biodiversity, fisheries and biogeochemistry.
The idea for the vessel was borne in the wake of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship (www.mas400.com), also developed and built in Plymouth by M Subs Ltd. and partners, including IBM. The vessel’s name, “Oceanus,” was the name of the first child to be born on the original Mayflower in 1620.
Designed primarily to make a transatlantic sampling voyage from the U.K. to the Falklands, the Oceanus will carry an advanced scientific payload and use the latest AI technology to help navigate the best course to its target location, with real-time input from weather forecasts and other marine data feeds.
Currently most oceanographic sampling is performed either through fully manned research trips or via moored data buoys and smaller autonomous devices, such as PML’s recently launched Autonaut and EcoSubs as part of Smart Sound Plymouth (www.pml.ac.uk/News/First-of-its-kind-data-buoy-launched-as-part-of-mu).
Although still important for validation purposes and more complex tasks, research trips are costly, logistically challenging and have an environmental footprint, while smaller autonomous devices are restricted in their range.
The Oceanus represents a groundbreaking vision of how long-range marine research can be carried out in a more environmentally benign way. While a fuel-efficient diesel engine will still feature, it will be complemented by onboard micro-energy generation devices and solar panels on the deck. With the weight of people and living facilities also removed, this will greatly reduce fuel consumption compared with traditional manned research vessels.
The command center for Oceanus will be hosted at PML and will display oceanographic conditions in near real time across the ship’s transect, providing scientists and other users with open access to the latest and most robust oceanographic data. In-situ sampling will still be needed at times to validate the autonomously collected data and to perform more complex monitoring and experiments that require proximity to the sample sources. However, autonomy on this scale will allow for radically more responsive and more frequent data collections at a wider range than currently possible, helping to plug any gaps in data sets and greatly improve marine modeling.
The Oceanus could eventually enable a remote Atlantic Meridional Transect (AMT, www.amt-uk.org), a unique annual marine research expedition along the length of the Atlantic Ocean that embarked on its first voyage in 1995. An autonomous AMT could lead to multiple data collection missions a year and give a much better understanding of the dynamics of the ocean environment.