A smart AUV maps phytoplankton to help seabird populations

An artist’s visualization of Harald in the ocean, detecting and measuring chlorophyll a as an indication of phytoplankton amounts and locations. Image: David Fierstein and Arild Hareide

Phytoplankton form the base of the marine food chain but are notoriously difficult for scientists to account for — a little like trying to identify and count motes of dust in the air. A truly independent underwater vehicle shows it can do the job.

Trygve Olav Fossum watched an orange, torpedo-shaped instrument slide off the R/V Gunnerus and plop into the coastal waters near the island called Runde. It was June 2017 and Fossum, a PhD candidate at NTNU, was part of a team of researchers trying to find answers to a vexing problem.

Runde, a triangle-shaped island off the mid-Norwegian coast, is known for its large seabird populations, including Atlantic puffins and Northern Gannets.

In recent years, bird numbers here and in much of the North Atlantic have dropped precipitously. No one knows quite why.

As a first step in their search for clues, NTNU researchers had assembled an interdisciplinary team of geologists, biologists, mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers, like Fossum, whose two metre-long autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) would contribute to one of the most unusual pieces of information on the Gunnerus’s week-long survey.

Fossum’s AUV, named after the Norwegian oceanographer Harald Sverdrup, would collect information that allowed scientists to make a 3-D map of hot spots of phytoplankton. These are the tiny single-celled algal cells at the base of the food chain. Their microscopic size and tendency to collect in patches have made this information nearly impossible for biologists to gather in the past.

The AUV was programmed to think on the go — “seeing” where the phytoplankton were, choosing its own course to zoom in on patches in an area to get a better sample. Scientists call this “adaptive sampling.” The 3-D maps, in turn, could provide important clues as to why bird populations around Runde were plummeting.

Zooplankton eat phytoplankton. Little fish eat zooplankton. Bigger fish eat the smaller fish. Finally, seabirds like puffins feast on these patches of fish. If something was changing phytoplankton amounts or distribution, it could set off a chain reaction that could affect the birds.

Having a smart AUV that can be programmed to seek out phytoplankton patches “is a complete game-changer,” says Geir Johnsen, an NTNU biologist is collaborating on the project. The results from Harald’s tour in the waters off Runde were recently reported in Science Robotics.

Large areas of unknown, and concentrated patches of fecundity

Marine biologists face a fundamental problem. The ocean is deep, broad and generally poorly understood. Some areas are more interesting than others, especially the small, concentrated areas that teem with life, such as coastal waters or the places where currents meet. To do their job, biologists need to understand what factors make some patches of ocean fertile while others are not.

Biologists describe this situation as, well, “patchiness,” Fossum said. The patchiness of phytoplankton is related to a number of different biophysical interactions, such as currents, turbulence and mixing, and biological processes, like how many other creatures are eating the phytoplankton.

“That means it’s a very hard question to figure out what controls the patchiness of these organisms in the ocean,” Fossum said.

Even if you are in a place that’s known to be a hot spot, patchiness can make it difficult to accurately quantify marine organisms in the area, especially if you are taking samples from a research boat, says Glaucia Fragoso, a postdoc at NTNU’s Department of Biology who was on the cruise with Fossum.

“If we drop our sampler in the wrong spot, we may undersample and underestimate phytoplankton numbers,” she said. “Or if we drop our sampler right in the middle of a patch, we can overestimate.”

Why patches are where they are

That’s what makes the adaptive sampling of Harald, the AUV, so unique, Fragoso said. Given an area to explore, it can make a 3-D map of phytoplankton patches. And knowing where patches are allows scientists to study other characteristics of that area so they better understand why the patches are where they are.

“Is the (phytoplankton) concentration there because of salinity?” said Fossum. “Maybe the phytoplankton are concentrated along a temperature or salinity layer, or maybe there is some other physical effect that is keeping them where they are?”

Knowing where and why phytoplankton aggregate and cluster in different ways can help answer questions about creatures that depend on the ocean for food, like the seabirds at Runde.

Seabirds typically nest in areas where they have easy access to food, since they have to feed themselves and their chicks, too. So figuring out phytoplankton amounts and where they are, in combination with other measurements, may help explain larger trends in seabird populations.

Adaptive sampling for greater detail

Harald was programmed with a sophisticated brain and equipped with a special measuring device called an ECOpuck nestled in its backside. When Fossum released it into the water that June day, Harald would roam the ocean’s depths in an area bounded by a 700×700 metre box, collecting information to make a 3-D map of phytoplankton.

The ECOpuck doesn’t actually measure phytoplankton itself, but something called chlorophyll a fluorescence. Phytoplankton use chlorophyll a pigments in the process of photosynthesis, and the substance fluoresces red when exposed to light. The ECOpuck detects the fluorescence, which can indicate how much phytoplankton biomass is found in the water.

At the start of the AUV’s journey, it takes measurements on the sides of the box and then gradually zooms into the area outlined by the box as it detects the region that seems to have the most chlorophyll a, Fossum says.

“It boxes in a volume of water and based on what it sees, it estimates what is inside,” he said. “Then it plans a route for inside and makes a map of the most interesting region. What I really want from this is an accurate map, with the accuracy where it is most needed — where the plankton aggregation is high.”

The researchers also relied on other sampling methods to collect even more information about plankton around Runde, including a special camera that took pictures of individual plankton, and counted and identified them automatically to help verify the results from the AUV.

A future for ships and AUVs

In spite of the success of the AUV, Fossum and others explain that biologists still need to gather information from other sources — like research cruises aboard the R/V Gunnerus.

“Oceanography is moving towards combined efforts to collect data, where robotic sampling is an essential part, providing capabilities and resolution that were previously unattainable with traditional methods,” Fossum said. “The ultimate goal is to effectively measure the impact of climate change in the ecosystem, for example.”

Fossum says there’s a need for much more persistent monitoring of Norway’s coasts, marine protected areas, and fragile habitats.

“The goal is to eventually automate much more of this work, but we are not aiming to replace ships, they are still vital in this endeavour,” he said.

The mystery remains

For her part, Fragoso sees the value of having an AUV like Harald to help pinpoint where she and other biologists should conduct more detailed sampling.

“Phytoplankton are just not easy to sample because they are constantly responding to an ever-changing environment,” she said. “This gives us a lot of additional information about how phytoplankton occur in the water column. And the more information we have, the better.”

As for the mystery of the birds on Runde, Fossum and Johnsen say scientists need to do more research over a longer period. For example, the timing of food availability is very important for both fish and birds.

“Birds need to find food especially when their chicks are hatching, and the fish need to be the right species and size for seabirds to survive,” Johnsen says. “Climate change and pollution are now rapidly altering conditions in the marine ecosystem, and we need to know more.”

“We took a snapshot of that area, which tells us something about the current ecosystem at that time,” Fossum added. “But we’ll need to go back and get another snapshot to detect changes and identify potential causes to say something about why the birds are declining.”

Learn more: Ocean life in 3-D: Mapping phytoplankton with a smart AUV

 

 

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Hydrogen-powered transportation gets a lot more real

From wind to hydrogen: In the wind farm Raggovidda in Finnmark, the wind allways blows. At the same time, the power grid lacks capacity to exploit the production-license granted in the area. Hydrogen can be the perfect storage medium and energy carrier for this surplus energy.The hydrogen can be transported to Svalbard in liquid form using hydrogen ships, SINTEF researchers suggest. Photo: Erik Wolf, Siemens.

Heavy-duty trucks will soon be driving around in Trondheim, Norway, fuelled by hydrogen created with solar power, and emitting only pure water vapour as “exhaust”. Not only will hydrogen technology revolutionize road transport, it will also enable ships and trains to run emission-free.

Norway’s role as a pioneer in the field of hydrogen technology started more than a century ago at a waterfall. In the steep mountain valley of Rjukan, an engineer and a businessman recognized the potential of the Vemork hydroelectric power station as a way to ensure food production for an ever-growing population. Kristian Birkeland and Sam Eyde wanted to build a factory to manufacture Norwegian fertilizers under the brand name “Norsk Hydro”. An architecturally futuristic hydrogen factory was built next to the power station. After its completion in 1929, it became a tourist attraction between the steep mountains of Rjukan.

Since then, most Norwegian hydrogen research has been conducted in various laboratories at Gløshaugen in Trondheim. In 1951 the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), then known as the Norwegian Institute of Technology (NTH), established its own electrochemical engineering institute. This research community has played a key role in what has become a major Norwegian electrochemical industry. Today, behind closed doors at SINTEF, top secret technology is being developed – funded by a number of Norwegian and international industrial companies, including the suppliers of electrolysis technology for hydrogen production. Recently, NTNU and SINTEF won a contract with a manufacturer of fuel cell electric vehicles that run on hydrogen and emit only water vapour.

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Principle sketch of hydrogen fuel cell. Illustration: SINTEF/Geminiresearchnews

Fuel cell research since the 1980s

NTNU and SINTEF have been working to develop fuel cell technology since the 1980s. In recent years, research and development activities at SINTEF have contributed to some major breakthroughs. Fuel cells have already become competitive in some niche markets, says Steffen Møller-Holst, Vice-President Marketing at SINTEF.

“In Japan, 150,000 fuel cells have been installed households to generate power and heat,” Møller-Holst says. “In the US, more than 10,000 hydrogen-powered forklifts are operating in warehouses and distribution centres.”

He and his research colleagues are now working actively to implement hydrogen technology in Norway with a focus on the transport sector. SINTEF’s project portfolio currently comprises forklifts, heavy-duty trucks and ferries.

“In Germany, the first fuel cell train is already undergoing trials, and Norway is one of many European countries that is now considering hydrogen-powered trains based on the conclusions of a study carried out by SINTEF for the Norwegian Railroad Administration,” says Møller-Holst.

Innovative Asian countries have taken the lead into commercializing fuel cells to power passenger cars. The Korean and Japanese car manufacturers are currently world leaders in a technological transition triggered by the challenges of global warming.

Møller-Holst returned less than two months ago from a three-week stay in Japan, where he held meetings with leading industrial companies that are eager to draw on the knowledge that SINTEF and NTNU have acquired over the last thirty years.

Steffen og Hirose (Toyota) i Tokyo mars 2017

Steffen Møller-Holst, SINTEF, and Dr. Katsuhiko Hirose, Toyota’s Toyota Cars Toyota’s first hybrid car Toyota Prius, which came on the market in 1997. The picture is taken on the Norwegian stand at Fuel Cell ExPo in Tokyo, March 2017. Photo: Norsk Hydrogenforum.

 

“SINTEF has been involved in 20 hydrogen-related EU-funded projects since 2010, about half of which are still running. This makes SINTEF a significant player in a European context,” says Møller-Holst.

Major investments in hydrogen by the Japanese are good news for SINTEF researchers who are already closely involved with some of the key players in the country.

But why is Japan investing so heavily in hydrogen? The rationale is that more than 90 per cent of the country’s energy demand is currently covered by imported fossil energy sources.  Hence, the Japanese are not just interested in hydrogen as a fuel for transport, but also for stationary power generation. In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Japan has already entered into an agreement with Australia to import of hydrogen from 2020.

“SINTEF has been involved both scientifically and politically, promoting Norway as a supplier of hydrogen to Japan based on our extensive energy resources,” says Møller-Holst.

thermoking (1 of 2) - Copy

Norway’s largest food wholesaler, ASKO, will have its first hydrogen-powered lorries on its way in 2018. Image lent from ASKO.

In fact, transport is not the only sector in which hydrogen will play a key role. Across the globe, countries deploying an increasing number of wind farms and photovoltaic power plants. However, it is not always possible to use all the wind power that is generated when it is windy, nor from the sun on a sunny day. This surplus electricity has to be stored, which makes  producing hydrogen an attractive alternative.

“The German industrial giant Siemens has concluded that hydrogen is the best storage option for energy capacities greater than 10 GWh.  More than 30 per cent of the power generation in Germany is covered by wind and solar sources, and pilot testing of hydrogen as a storage medium is well underway, “says Møller-Holst.

Batteries too large, heavy and costly

Møller-Holst is convinced that in order to meet our emissions targets, we have to consider many applications, including goods transport by road, rail and ship. No other technology can compete with hydrogen when it comes to emission-free long-haul transport.

That’s why ASKO, Norway’s largest food wholesaler, is aiming to have its first hydrogen-powered delivery trucks on the roads in 2018. In doing so, it will probably be the first hauler in Europe with a small fleet of heavy-duty hydrogen vehicles. SINTEF has helped initiate and worked closely with the effort. The project manager is Anders Ødegård, who works at SINTEF’s Department of Sustainable Energy Technology.

“The use of batteries to power heavy duty trucks would be very expensive,” says Ødegård. “They would also be so large and heavy that the trucks’ payload capacity would be considerably reduced. We have to obey the laws of physics and respect material-related constraints.”

There is no doubt that electrical drive trains will replace conventional mechanical fossil-based propulsion in the future and that batteries will become very important in all transport segments. However, hydrogen becomes an increasingly good option if vehicles are heavier and have a longer distance to go. This brings us to the railway sector, for which politicians foresee a greater share of freight transport as a means of reducing emissions.

Heading north – with hydrogen

For many years, politicians have suggested that Norway’s longest railway line (Nordlandsbanen) be made emission-free – in the traditional way. In other words, politicians believe that today’s diesel operation should be replaced by electrification, using pylons and overhead lines.

In the spring of 2015, Møller-Holst and his colleagues at SINTEF completed a study for the Norwegian National Rail Administration (JBV) demonstrating that it was possible to operate several of Norway’s railway lines, including Nordlandsbanen, emission-free.

In fact, the report concluded that between EUR 36 and 45 billion can be saved annually on the line from Steinkjer to Bodø (along Nordlandsbanen) if battery- or hydrogen-powered trains were used instead of traditional electrification.

“The report reached a consensus, based on individual experts’ statements obtained during the project, including those from the JBV’s own specialists and SINTEF’s interdisciplinary team,” says Møller-Holst, who led the study.

“Prior to 2020 biodiesel should replace fossil diesel fuel as an interim solution. Then, in the early 2020s, investments in battery-powered trains will be the most attractive option,” he said. “From the mid 2020s, hydrogen is the solution that best fulfils the various requirements that apply for freight trains on the future railroad network.”

Four regions in Germany are currently taking the lead internationally. They have commissioned 100 hydrogen-powered passenger trains. The first is already undergoing trials and the technology is expected to be ready for freight trains before 2025. Møller-Holst argues that Norway should follow the Germans in using hydrogen, and suggests starting with Raumabanen when it comes to passenger trains and Nordlandsbanen for freight trains.

A “wind-wind” situation

Across the fjord from the city of Trondheim there is a mountain chain that the locals call “the Fosen Alps”. This is where Statkraft and TrønderEnergi will construct Europe’s largest wind farm. The wind blows intensively on Fosen all year round, which makes for enormous potential. Annual production from this wind farm alone is expected to reach 3.5 TWh (terawatt hours) of renewable energy, and will be sufficient to supply electricity to Trondheim’s entire population of 170,000.

“Currently, both NTNU and SINTEF are providing decision support to TrønderEnergi as part of the company’s evaluation of the possibility of producing hydrogen from the surplus wind energy,” says Møller-Holst.

Many other stakeholders across Norway are also making the similar assessments looking into hydrogen production. This includes Glomfjord, at a hydroelectric power plant that was a ‘gemini’ plant to that at Rjukan –the cradle of the industrial boom created close to a century ago when Norsk Hydro started producing hydrogen for fertilizers.

SINTEF has recently identified as many as 10 stakeholders that intend to start hydrogen production in Norway. SINTEF is assisting several as they assess possible investments. Interest in hydrogen is really taking off.

However, energy researchers at SINTEF have plans that are even more exciting than hydrogen production from surplus renewable energy. Tommy Mokkelbost is a Senior Research Scientist working at SINTEF’s Svalbard office.

“In Svalbard the impact of climate change is much more severe than in other areas on the planet,” he says. “The ice around the archipelago is melting rapidly, and the glaciers are retreating at record speeds. This creates problems for polar bears in their hunting areas. Moreover, power and heat to Longyearbyen is supplied by Norway’s only coal-fired power station. So what would be more natural than to transform Longyearbyen into the world’s first emission-free community?”

Several options should be studied, of which hydrogen technology represents an exciting alternative, he says.

He envisages that hydrogen could be produced from wind farms located in Norway’s northernmost county, Finnmark, where the wind never stops blowing, but where today’s power grid capacity is very limited. Hydrogen could then be transported to Svalbard in liquid form using hydrogen tankers.

hydrogen_maritime_lhg_kawasaki_hi_2500m3

This pilot tanker from Kawasaki will transport 170 tonnes of liquid hydrogen. From 2020 it will be used in hydrogenimport from Australia to Japan. Illustration: Kawasaki.

The Japanese giant Kawasaki Heavy Industries is already constructing a pilot vessel designed to transport liquid hydrogen. The first vessel will be used to import hydrogen from Australia to Japan from 2020.

Møller-Holst supports this idea.

“The passenger cruisers that currently circumnavigate Svalbard, as well as the numerous ferries operating along the Norwegian coast – in and out of our World Heritage fjords burning heavy oils and emitting large quantities of CO2, particulates and NOx – could also be hydrogen-powered, and thus emission-free, in the foreseeable future,” he says.

Making maritime transport “green”

Norway has become a world leader in reducing maritime emissions over the last three decades. The country has succeeded by developing the world’s most advanced and efficient ship designs, paving the road for the use of natural gas as a fuel and, since 2015, operating the world’s first battery-powered car ferry . Next is hydrogen, which will eliminate greenhouse gas emissions also for longer ferry crossings.

Recently, on contract for the shipyard Fiskerstrand, SINTEF was selected to design the world’s first hydrogen ferry in collaboration with regulatory bodies and a number of technology suppliers, including some from Norway. The goal is to have the vessel in the water by 2020. Considerable public funding has been allocated to stimulating development in this field. In addition to SINTEF’s advocacy, the Norwegian Public Roads Administration (Statens vegvesen), which is responsible for all ferries as an integral part of the national road infrastructure, has lately become a key driver in reducing emissions from maritime transport.

The project has already received international attention, not least in Brussels. Public support has been granted from the new Pilot-E funding programme, which is a joint funding instrument involving the Research Council of Norway, ENOVA and Innovation Norway.

“If we in Norway want to secure future revenues from tourism and exotic Arctic adventures, we cannot continue to power Svalbard by coal nor ships with heavy fuel oil,” says Møller-Holst. “We already have the technology and the knowledge we need to reach zero emissions.”

There is no doubt that the “green transition” is well underway: Møller-Holst is already meeting with the Norwegian state-owned oil company Statoil, which is eager to talk to him about its new department, New Energy Solutions.

Learn more: Fuel of the future

 

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A new way to know how what we buy affects endangered species

Credit: Daniel Moran and Keiichiro Kanemoto.
This map shows the species threat hotspots caused by US consumption. The darker the color, the greater the threat caused by the consumption. The magenta color represents terrestrial species, while the blue represents marine species.

Maps show species threat ‘hotspots’ to make connection between consumers, impacts

The things we consume, from iPhones to cars to IKEA furniture, have costs that go well beyond their purchase price. What if the soybeans used to make that tofu you ate last night were grown in fields that were hewn out of tropical rainforests? Or if that tee-shirt you bought came from an industrial area that had been carved out of high-value habitat in Malaysia?

Unless you buy sustainably sourced food or goods, however, it can be hard to know just how consumer purchases affect species — until now. Daniel Moran from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and his colleague Keiichiro Kanemoto from Shinshu University in Japan have developed a technique that allows them to identify threats to wildlife caused by the global supply chains that fuel our consumption. They’ve used this technique to create a series of world maps that show the species threat hotspots across the globe for individual countries.

Their article describing this effort has been published online in Nature Ecology & Evolution this week.

6803 species considered

The researchers calculated the percentage of threat to a species in one country due to consumption of goods in another, with a focus on 6,803 species of vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered marine and terrestrial animals as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and BirdLife International.

One way to see how the hotspot maps work is to look at the effects of US consumption across the globe.

For terrestrial species, the researchers found that US consumption caused species threat hotspots in Southeast Asia and Madagascar, but also in southern Europe, the Sahel, the east and west coasts of southern Mexico, throughout Central America and Central Asia and into southern Canada. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises was that US consumption also caused species threat hotspots in southern Spain and Portugal.

Connecting environmental problems to economic activity

Moran says making the connection between consumption and environmental impacts offers an important opportunity for governments, companies, and individuals to take an informed look at these impacts — so they can find ways to counteract them.

“Connecting observations of environmental problems to economic activity, that is the innovation here,” he said. “Once you connect the environmental impact to a supply chain, then many people along the supply chain, not only producers, can participate in cleaning up that supply chain.”

As an example, he said, government regulators can only control the producers whose products cause biodiversity losses and deforestation in Indonesia.

But if the EU wanted to look at its role in causing those problems in Indonesia, they could look at the maps produced by the researchers and see what kind of impacts EU consumers are having on that country, and where those impacts are located — the hotspots”.

The EU “could decide to adjust their research programmes or environmental priorities to focus on certain hotspots in Southeast Asia,” Moran said. “Companies could also use these maps to find out where their environmental impact hotspots are, and make changes.”

Learn more: Big Data Shows How What We Buy Affects Endangered Species

 

 

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Clay-based nanostructures could impact oil production, food spoilage, cosmetic and drug manufacturing

Porous low-density nanoclay via Google

Porous low-density nanoclay via Google

By controlling a mix of clay, water and salt, Norwegian and Brazilian researchers have created nanostructures that might help boost oil production, expand the lifespan of certain foods or that could be used in cosmetics or drugs.

You’ve seen sauce or mayonnaise that separates, or a slippery layer of oil that forms on top of skin cream. Oil and water generally stay separate. It is actually hard work to keep water droplets or oil droplets stable in a substance called an emulsion.

Processed food, medicine and enhanced oil recovery from oil reservoirs all face this challenge. And while a substance called an emulsifier can also be used to keep an emulsion stable, many industries also have the opposite challenge—keeping oil separated from water.

Jon Otto Fossum, an NTNU physicist, has previously worked with controlling the behavior of clay and oil drops using electricity, a find that was published in Nature Communications in 2013. Now he’s branching out into salty water, oil and clay.

Designer materials

In this latest effort, Fossum led an international group that created two different types of clay-based nanostructures on an oil droplet in water simply by fine-tuning the salinity of the water around the drop. The find was published in an open-access online journal published by Nature called Scientific Reports.

The find builds on two well-known properties of clay in water.

Clay particles repel one another in water that does not contain salt. In this case, the clays form the same kinds of nanostructures that are found in glass materials.

In contrast, clay particles in saline water tend to aggregate and form a kind of gel consisting of a nano-network of clay particles.

“It is possible to design small particles of clay with a micrometer thin gel on an oil droplet in water by fine tuning the salinity of the water around the oil drop,” said Fossum.

Mechanical strength important

Fossum said the find shows that there are micrometer-thick gel structures formed at specific salt concentrations in water with sufficient mechanical strength to prevent oil droplets in emulsions from merging with one another. Until the team’s research, no one had observed glass or gel nanostructures in nanofluids at fluid-fluid interfaces.

The ability to create micrometer-thick gel structures by controlling salt concentrations could be used to improve the amount of oil recovered from oil reservoirs, Fossum said, or might be able to improve the lifetime of specific food products. The structures might also find a use in medicines or cosmetics, he said.

Norwegian-Brazilian cooperation

The international team behind the research is drawn from NTNU, Norway’s largest university, and from Pontifica Universidade Catolica do Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), and Universidade de Sao Paulo (USP), two of Latin America’s top universities.

Learn more: Clay and a little salt water can make for enhanced oil recovery

 

 

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Robots – our new underwater “astronauts”

Divers are few and the tasks often hazardous, so the subsea industries are looking for the greater use of unmanned submarine vehicles. Photo: Geir Johnsen/NTNU/Aurlab

Divers are few and the tasks often hazardous, so the subsea industries are looking for the greater use of unmanned submarine vehicles. Photo: Geir Johnsen/NTNU/Aurlab

Soon it may be easier to design, plan and carry out infrastructure operations in deep water. The EU project called “SWARMs” aims to achieve this by integrating autonomous vehicles such as ROVs and AUVs.

In the years ahead, the number of infrastructure operations carried out in deep water will increase.

Oil and gas production is moving into increasingly deeper waters, offshore wind turbines and wave energy plants are being installed, and minerals on the sea floor are waiting to be exploited. This will mean an increased need for robots that can construct, maintain and monitor the necessary infrastructure.

Reducing the need for divers

Many subsea tasks are currently performed by human divers. But divers are few and the tasks often hazardous, so the subsea industries are looking for alternatives. The solution lies in the greater use of unmanned submarine vehicles such as AUVs and ROVs.

The only problem is that currently these vehicles are tailored for specific tasks, and this explains why they are difficult to operate and expensive to use.

Making it simple

The EU project SWARMs aims to simplify the design, planning and implementation of subsea infrastructure operations.

Norwegian partners SINTEF, NTNU, Maritime Robotics, Inventas and Water Linked will be working together with more than thirty major technology companies, universities and research institutes from all over Europe to design and develop a set of hardware and software components. The integrated platform will be installed in submarine vehicles currently in use.

One of the aims of the project is to enable a “SWARMs system” of unmanned submarine vehicles to carry out complex tasks without low-level control by human operators.

Optimal human-machine interaction

SINTEF is planning to advance a methodology previously developed in-house and designed, among other things, to break work operations down into an autonomous system. All those involved must have a joint understanding of the operations that have to be carried out during both the design and operational phases. This will make it much easier for them to integrate the correct behaviour into the system.

“Our aim is to enable greater autonomy and interaction between the different vehicles and thus provide opportunities for new applications and costs reductions”, says Gorm Johansen at SINTEF ICT.

Five different user scenarios, including the inspection of subsea structures and emissions monitoring, will be demonstrated in Norway, Romania and on Gran Canaria.

The Norwegian demonstrator will enable software and equipment supplied by many of the different SWARMs to interact together. It will be tested outside the Høvringen wastewater treatment plant in Trondheim during trials planned for early spring 2018.

Read more: Robots – our new underwater “astronauts”

 

 

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