The next generation of ocean-going robotic vehicles will be developed by two cutting-edge technology companies from the South Coast of England, working with the UK's National Oceanography Centre.
ASV Ltd of Portchester and MOST (AV) Ltd of Chichester have won contracts under the Government-backed Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) to develop the vehicles - known generically as Long Endurance Marine Unmanned Surface Vehicles - that will carry out sustained marine research over long periods. The Technology Strategy Board and Natural Environment Research Council jointly fund the programme with supplementary funding of additional elements from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).
The SBRI programme has moved into the second phase with ASV and MOST (AV) selected on merit from the five companies that won Phase 1 awards to manufacture working prototypes of their proposed vehicles. To demonstrate capability as part of the year-long programme, the vehicles will be extensively tested, both in Southampton Water and off Oban, home of the Scottish Association of Marine Science (SAMS) who make extensive use of autonomous vehicles in their research and who were represented in the selection process for the contracts.
When developed, the vehicles, which operate on the sea surface rather than at depth, will be invaluable platforms for gathering scientific data from the ocean over periods of several months. A wide range of sensors to take measurements beneath and above the ocean surface, together with satellite navigation tools, communications for command and control and for data transfer to shore, are all readily available. The vehicles will demonstrate several feasible technologies to provide the energy necessary for long deployment.
The selection process was overseen by a panel of scientific and technical experts, coordinated by the Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems (MARS) facility based at the National Oceanography Centre. MARS provides autonomous and remotely operated vehicles to the UK's marine science community on behalf of the Natural Environment Research Council.
Geraint West, Head of National Marine Facilities at NOC, of which MARS is a part, said: "Long Endurance Marine Unmanned Surface Vehicles will make a major contribution to the ability of scientists to take measurements from the ocean, which are currently grossly under-sampled in space and time. The process that selected MOST (AV) and ASV was very rigorous and we are confident that we have two excellent partners to take this exciting programme forward. I would like to offer both my congratulations."
The SBRI programme is promoted by the Technology Strategy Board, the UK's innovation agency. It is designed to use the power of government procurement to drive innovation and provides opportunities for companies to engage with the public sector to solve specific problems. Competitions for new technologies and ideas are run on specific topics and aim to engage a broad range of organisations. SBRI enables the public sector to engage with industry during the early stages of development, supporting projects through the stages of feasibility and prototyping.
Director of MOST (AV), David Maclean, said: "We are delighted to have won this SBRI competition and we look forward to working closely with both the NOC and Dstl staff to demonstrate a production prototype of our unique, Autonaut® wave powered vessel technology. The capability of marine robotic surface vessels to provide persistent surveillance of, and data gathering from, the oceans is advancing rapidly and the Autonaut will add a new dimension to this role."
Dan Hook, Managing Director of ASV said: "We are delighted to have been given the opportunity to work with NERC, SBRI and Dstl on this exciting project. We have been developing unmanned surface vessels for over ten years and see huge potential for this new long endurance craft in gathering important scientific data and contributing to national security in a cost effective manner. We have developed the C-Enduro vessel to scavenge energy from its surroundings but also carry a micro-diesel generator for added assurance that it can navigate safely in any conditions. We are working with an excellent consortium including Cosworth, Cranfield University and Hyperdrive Ltd to bring cutting edge technology for energy generation, autonomy and safe navigation."
Stephen Browning, Head of SBRI at the Technology Strategy Board, said: "The Technology Strategy Board is delighted with the success of this first SBRI competition within the Research Councils, overseen by the National Oceanography Centre. Robotics and Autonomous Systems form one of the Eight Great Technologies that the UK Government is focussing on. It is encouraging to see the quality of the innovative solutions resulting from the relationships between SMEs and NOC, developed through this SBRI competition to address future challenges."