Offshore/subsea systems

Firm Reveals Plans for First Long-Range Autonomous Research Vessel

UK-based M Subs has been commissioned to design the 24-m Oceanus, which is planned for trans-Atlantic research voyages.

The <i>Oceanus.</i>
Source: PML

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 funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, the uncrewed 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 areas such as climate change, biodiversity, fisheries, and biogeochemistry.

“This is a hugely exciting venture,” said Icarus Allen, the chief executive of PML, “with the capacity to revolutionize the way we carry out marine research expeditions and support the drive towards net zero.”

Designed primarily to make the trans-Atlantic sampling voyage from the UK to the Falklands, the Oceanus will carry an advanced scientific payload and use artificial intelligence (AI) technology to help navigate the best course to its target location, with real-time input from weather forecasts and other marine data feeds.

“The Oceanus will exploit the very latest in AI technology, enabling us to push the frontiers of marine science and open up new opportunities in how we monitor the ocean environment,” Allen said. “Not that long ago, this would have been the stuff of science-fiction fantasy, but through the design and development of the Oceanus, we are really unlocking the future of ocean-going marine research.”

Currently, most oceanographic sampling is performed either through fully manned research trips or with moored data buoys and smaller autonomous devices. Although still important for validation purposes and more-complex tasks, research trips are costly and logistically challenging and have a significant environmental footprint while smaller autonomous devices are restricted in their range.

PML said the Oceanus represents a vision of how long-range marine research can be conducted in a more environmentally benign way. While a fuel-efficient diesel engine still will be used, it will be complemented by on-board micro-energy generation devices and solar panels on the deck. The removal of people and living facilities also will reduce weight and, thus, 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 oceanographic data.

In-situ sampling still will 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. Autonomy on this scale, however, 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 improve marine modeling.

The idea for the vessel was borne in the wake of the Mayflower autonomous ship, also developed and built in Plymouth, UK, by M Subs and partners including IBM. The vessel’s name, Oceanus, was the name of the first child born on the original Mayflower in 1620.

The Oceanus is expected to be a platform for innovation, and the team said it hopes the vessel eventually will enable a remote Atlantic Meridional Transect (AMT), an 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 to give a much better understanding of the dynamics of the ocean environment.

“The voyages of exploration the RV Oceanus will undertake are matched in intensity by the parallel technological voyage to bring into being a new era in climate science—at lower fiscal and ecological cost,” said Brett A. Phaneuf, the managing director of M Subs.