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Autonomous robots prepare to storm the ocean depths

Innovate UK

October 31, 2023

Sonardyne were delighted to be part of the trials of a fleet of marine robots able to tackle complex offshore tasks as part of a groundbreaking project funded by Innovate UK, which is poised to change approaches to ocean exploration.

Autonomous marine systems are being developed and deployed in increasing numbers. However, as maritime operations become ever more complex and expensive, and installed energy infrastructure increases in scale and distance from shore, there is a rapidly emerging need for more sophisticated multi-platform capabilities in the offshore renewable energy (ORE) market.

Squads of Adaptive Robots (SoAR) is a two-year collaborative research project, led by the developer of ecoSUB autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), Planet Ocean. The project kicked off in September 2021 and culminated this summer with full system testing at Smart Sound Plymouth on England’s south coast.

The SoAR team’s aim was to demonstrate how large-scale survey and exploration missions can be achieved by going beyond the limitations of individual AUVs. We worked alongside industry and academic partners; Planet Ocean, HydroSurv, the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), Royal Holloway University and the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult to develop advanced AI-driven mission planning, communications protocols for fleet coordination and significant improvements in underwater navigation and communications technology.

The trials simulated an offshore windfarm concession survey mission informed by a comprehensive business case analysis by the team at ORE Catapult.

The Technology

The fleet-level autonomy engine developed by Royal Holloway, University of London served as the mission’s central nervous system, making real-time decisions and replanning when necessary due to factors such as inaccurate mission execution, vehicle faults, changes in the operating environment or the addition and removal of stations. The division of labour enabled by this approach showed significant promise in productivity gains made possible by robotics and AI.

The SoAR Communications Backbone, developed and released by the team at the NOC, acted as a central messaging system which enabled interoperability between the fleet-level autonomy engine, each vehicle-specific command and control system and any other sub-system requiring bi-directional communication. This was key to allowing the seamless introduction of different platforms and sub-systems in diverse combinations to suit a wide range of mission objectives.

We provided inter-medium communications via our AvTrak 6 Nano acoustic transceivers fitted to each AUV. This enabled simultaneous USBL tracking via a surface vessel and robust telemetry for AUV-to-vessel and AUV-to-AUV communications.

A small swarm of four ecoSUB AUVs, each fitted with an AvTrak 6 Nano acoustic transceiver, played a crucial role in rapidly assessing the underwater environment and conducting preliminary evaluations to identify targets of interest.

An Auto-Hover 1 (AH1) AUV, owned and operated by NOC, capable of exceptional precision in maintaining station and navigating vertically within the water column, and fitted with an AvTrak transceiver, was dedicated to close inspection tasks, enabling intricate and comprehensive examination of identified targets.

Our HydroSurv REAV-60 uncrewed surface vessel ‘Decibel’ assumed a pivotal role, serving as a crucial communications gateway to and from the AUV swarm. It was fitted with an HPT 3000 transceiver and ran our well-established Ranger-2 software on its topside, facilitating inter-medium communication and providing navigation support to the AUVs. Decibel was also equipped with various communications devices including 4G/LTE and Iridium satellite communication systems to enable communications between subsea, surface and the Autonomy Engine.

The deployed SoAR fleet was managed and controlled from HydroSurv’s shore-based Remote Operations Centre in Exeter, using 4G/LTE and Iridium communications.


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The Result

The open-water trials successfully showcased co-ordinated missions designed, monitored and adapted in real-time by an intelligent “Autonomy Engine”. The trials involved several surface and underwater autonomous systems, with mission management conducted from a remote shore-based command and control facility.

SoAR has led to the introduction of several technological innovations, including advanced AI-driven mission planning, open-source communications protocols for heterogenous fleet coordination and a range of new and enhanced platform capabilities for both surface and sub-surface systems. The variety of small form factor robotic platforms involved in the project represented some of the best innovation in UK ocean robotics to date.

The SoAR concept is adaptable to various applications but strategically tailored to address the specific needs of the offshore wind sector, developing an approach that will offer new operating paradigms and substantial long term cost savings for offshore asset construction and maintenance compared to conventional methods.

SoAR received funding from the ‘Next Generation Subsea Technologies’ competition, a joint initiative supported by Innovate UK, the Net Zero Technology Centre and the Royal Navy.


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