Hand Launch of ecoSUB-ì. Photo credit: Planet Ocean Ltd and National Oceanography Centre.
As the data gatherers of the sea, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) are the go-to technology for those seeking knowledge from under the waves. Many vehicles are now able to travel vast distances across the world’s oceans, collecting valuable data for users in science, military, and commercial sectors. The technology has advanced substantially over the last decade as sensors become smaller, autonomy becomes smarter, and vehicles become more powerful, widening the net for more applications and opening doors to multi-use missions. And now, the latest trend in micro AUV platforms means this new cutting-edge technology and smarter systems will be more accessible than ever before. EcoSUB Robotics Limited is a brand-new company delivering advanced, low-cost micro AUVs. The innovative ecoSUB range will not only help provide access to superior data sets but could also lead the marine sector into a new age of advanced ocean knowledge.
The innovative system was born from an idea within the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) and nurtured in the head office of Planet Ocean Limited, a UK-based marine science technology specialist. After extensive collaboration with the UK’s Marine Autonomous Robotics Systems (MARS) group at NOC, the ecoSUB micro AUV range was launched.
Terry Sloane, CEO of Planet Ocean Ltd and ecoSUB Robotics Ltd, is confident that these low-cost platforms will help many more users across research, academia, and teaching access marine autonomous systems (MAS) and apply the benefits of collecting wide spatial and temporal data. “We wanted to create a capable vehicle that would draw upon the latest sensor, energy, and materials technology to democratise the use of AUVs. It was important to us that the system was easy to use, performed worthwhile missions without compromise of specifications, and, above all, it had to be affordable.”
The ecoSUB programme officially began in 2015 after a successful Planet Ocean bid won funding by Innovate UK and DSTL. The project aimed to develop the launch and recovery of multiple AUVs from an Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV). In turn, this stimulated the development of the micro AUVs based on an original NOC concept vehicle.
By November 2016, the micro AUV platform was finally revealed and launched as “ecoSUB-ì” at the NOC MARS Innovation Showcase. Early in the project, BP showed significant interest and funded the parallel development of a second AUV—a vehicle that can dive deeper with a larger payload capability. The 8-month project resulted in the slightly larger, but still one-man deployable “ecoSUB-m,” which was also uncovered at the MARS Showcase event last year.
Sloane said, “Micro AUVs have several benefits that stand out over larger AUVs. Cost is an important one, which by default leads to several others. The small size means that manufacturing costs can be less, but perhaps more importantly, the cost of ownership is less. There are no expensive mechanical handling systems required to support launch and recovery, and they can be transported cheaply. Furthermore, maintenance and support costs are lower, and there is less time needed for training and familiarisation compared to larger systems.”
The benefit of a low-cost system means that several vehicles can be deployed on a single mission to produce far higher temporal and spatial data sets than would be obtained with a single, more expensive AUV or glider. While the small size means that users are not yet able to carry large suites of sensors on a single vehicle, users can equip multiple vehicles with different sensor combinations to achieve the same results.
“The future for ecoSUB is very exciting.” – Terry Sloane, CEO of Planet Ocean Ltd
“Because the vehicles are small, we have had to work smarter to achieve meaningful mission capability in the absence of expensive components such as DVLs or USBL positioning systems. The small size means that the ì version is capable of being air launched from small, fixed-wing autonomous aircraft (UAV) or indeed multi-rotor platforms. The University of Southampton are actively engaged in a programme to demonstrate this.”
The ongoing programme is a collaboration with Planet Ocean Ltd, NOC, ASV Ltd, and the University of Southampton. ASV Ltd have developed an automated launch and recovery system, while a team of engineers from Planet Ocean and the NOC MARS group worked together to build a micro AUV platform capable of serving a broad range of sectors. The resulting systems have the capability to deploy advanced sensors such as high accuracy CTDs, dissolved oxygen, and fluorometers.
“Our academic partner, the University of Southampton, have provided their new wave tank for initial response testing. Of course, being located in the NOC innovation centre has also allowed us to benefit from the considerable test facilities located there—we have been testing and developing behaviours and refining control systems in closed, freshwater facilities that allow us to undertake these tests in controlled conditions,” explained Sloane.
During the ecoSUB programme, engineers have had to overcome several challenges, including lack of available high-performance sensors compatible with the needs of a micro platform. Power supply chemistry was also a critical issue so that they can achieve the desired speed and endurance as was incorporating the required intelligence to achieve high levels of autonomy in such a small body. Use of advanced 3D printing technology has accelerated the design process and allowed the teams to evaluate several solutions quickly and economically.
Now, ecoSUB is currently entering the open-water test phase where the vehicles and sensors will be put through their paces in real mission scenarios.
Introducing Micro Platforms to the Industry
Around the world, there are a huge number of potential users of AUV technology in the areas of science, defence, oil and gas, and commercial sectors. But, not everyone could access the technology. The ability to afford or even to evaluate AUVs as a useful addition created an obstacle that, until now, prevented many users from incorporating the technology within their work.
“We engaged with potential end users in the first year of the project and their input, encouragement, and backing has been extremely useful—it has helped shape the project. Since the launch, feedback has been exceptional. We have received orders for five advanced prototypes and additional funding to supplement the Innovate UK investment. There is also considerable interest from collaborators in future R&D activity to expand the capabilities of the vehicles. So, already we can say that the future for ecoSUB is very exciting,” said Sloane.
There are several key applications ecoSUB Robotics envisages for the new micro AUV range. Whilst micro AUVs are not seen as replacements for the larger, more capable platforms, it is likely these systems will be able to complete missions that a traditional AUV or glider cannot. And, because of size and cost, there will be new options in terms of how missions are structured using “shoals” of vehicles instead of just one or two large platforms.
Testing of ecoSUB-ì in University of Southampton wave tank facility. Photo credit: University of Southampton.
Sloane said, “Of course, we have had a lot of applications suggested to us by potential users, some of which we had considered, but many which we had not. This provides us with a healthy development path going forward—the challenge is deciding which to tackle first. Many like-minded groups are operating in the UK and elsewhere that are developing technology which will enhance the capabilities of ecoSUB in the coming months and years. We find this very exciting, if not a little challenging.”
The defence sector already recognises the potential for autonomous system use in their situational awareness and tactical operations. EcoSUB hopes to dramatically reduce barriers to MAS use in this sector by significantly diminishing logistical challenges of launch, recovery, and operations. There is also scope for integrated mission control and useful, focused data products to deliver key information when and where it is needed.
Dr Alex Phillips, lead designer, with ecoSUB-ì against some of the NOC Glider fleet. Photo credit: Planet Ocean Ltd and National Oceanography Centre.
“All of the team believe in great design and challenging the status quo.” – Terry Sloane, CEO of Planet Ocean Ltd
Commercial operators, especially in the oil and gas sector, see enormous potential in the affordable use of MAS for a whole range of activity, including a rapid environmental assessment, subsea inspection, and asset monitoring and support.
Most importantly, the initial low-cost investment will also help users test the system capabilities in a variety of conditions and scenarios without the financial burden and risks associated with the larger alternatives. This will not only help to build the trust required in the technology before use in live missions, but also gives rise to new opportunities to use these systems in applications where AUV use was not possible, or even considered, until now.
A Big Future for Micro AUVs
As technology in this sector continues to advance at an astonishing rate, the industry will likely see smaller, lower power, and more accurate sensors arriving. This will not only improve what micro AUV platforms can offer, but enable users to measure more parameters in the future. And, so that more complex missions can be undertaken, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-surface communications should develop quickly along with improvements in navigation.
“In the next 5 years, we will see much more integration of micro-AUVs with larger AUVs, ASVs, and UUVs in everyday data-gathering activities and hopefully advances in energy technology—given the levels of investment being put into this area currently. At the moment, satellite communication bandwidth can be a limiting factor in some instances so there needs to be some improvement in this area if the technology is going to advance any further,” commented Sloane.
“It is great to see a few new players in this emerging sector, each taking slightly different approaches, but, overall, this validates our thinking. This process has been challenging, but also exciting, fast, slow, thought provoking, and creative. All of the team believe in great design and challenging the status quo. ‘Disruptive technology’ is an overused term, but not in this context! But, what can the industry expect to see for ecoSUB in the coming years? I’m not saying just yet.”
Terry Sloane, CEO of Planet Ocean Ltd and ecoSUB Robotics Ltd, UK.