Roger Hine, inventor of the Wave Glider discusses how these small, scalable,
wave-powered robots are enabling the "Blue Economy."
On a planet mostly covered by water, there is plenty of dull, dirty and dangerous work to be done at sea, but robotics provides breakthrough capabilities that will transform how humans interact with the ocean.
New technical capabilities and increasing market demand have converged to kick off an era of growth in autonomous, unmanned systems—an important component of the blue economy’s infrastructure.
Picture a small ocean robot swimming deep beneath the sea.
It could be searching, mapping, servicing equipment, or performing any number of other activities that we take for granted while living on the 28% of the planet that is not covered in water.
This robot works in a hostile environment.
Saltwater can short-circuit electronics and corrode metal, and deep under the ocean, water exerts a crushing pressure of tonnes per square inch.
Closer to the surface, there are waves, wind and extreme weather.
Sharks bite things to see if they’re edible, and algae and barnacles grow wherever they can, fouling mechanisms and sensors.
The field of ocean robotics is decades old and, thanks to steady development and funding from organisations like the United States Office of Naval Research and oceanographic research labs around the world, many of the challenges it presents now have solutions.
Energy, communications and market development have all been holding back the widespread adoption of ocean robotics.
Fortunately, there’s now good news on all these fronts.
The SHARC unmanned surface vehicle detected, reported, and tracked a manned submarine during the Unmanned Warrior exercise off the coast of Scotland in October 2016.
Robotic autonomy isn’t just about artificial intelligence.
For ocean systems, energy is the first constraint on how independent a robot can be.
The most common robotic systems in the marine industry are remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that are powered through a tether connected to a ship.
Famously, several ROVs were deployed a mile deep to stop the oil gushing from the ocean floor after the catastrophic failure of the Deepwater Horizon rig.
These ROVs, while often extremely sophisticated, are an extension of highly trained human crews living and working on specialised ships.
Since ship operations are expensive, ship-based robot operations are even more expensive.
Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) achieve great agility and flexibility by eliminating the ROV’s tether, cutting the cord to the support ship.
But this means that UUVs must rely purely on stored energy; their limited battery capacity constrains their range and the power available for sensors.
Most UUVs are deployed from ships and operated in a similar way to ROVs.
Improved battery technology, combined with low-power sensors and processors, is leading to rapid advances in the efficacy of long-range UUVs.
Buoyancy gliders, a type of UUV, use hyper-efficient propulsion to spend months at sea and operate in a way that is truly unmanned—with no ship in sight.
At the surface of the ocean, a newer class of autonomous ocean vehicles called unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) has emerged.
Harvesting energy from wind, waves and the sun, USVs such as Liquid Robotics’ Wave Gliders convert natural energy to power propulsion, sensor payloads and communication devices.
Boeing’s latest unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) Echo Voyager.
The 51-foot-long vehicle is the latest innovation in Boeing’s UUV family, joining the 32-foot Echo Seeker and the 18-foot Echo Ranger.
Robots are teaming up
The communications network for ocean robots is comprised of ocean robots, which are now being deployed in teams above, below and on the surface of the ocean.
Radio waves and light don’t propagate through the ocean like they do through the atmosphere.
Just a few centimetres of saltwater is enough to block radio and GPS signals.
Sound, on the other hand, travels enormous distances underwater.
Robots at the surface, equipped with acoustic modems and satellite links, are being used to extend communications and positioning services to a wide variety of subsea devices, including sea-floor sensors and UUVs.
In combined deployments, aerial drones with optical sensors and surface robots with acoustic sensors co-operate to extend communication ranges and provide a persistent and agile monitoring system.
A system-of-systems approach enables real-time, actionable updates for early detection, warning and monitoring.
Paint the Target (Liquid Robotics promotional video)
Networked robots aren’t just a product: they’re a platform
This network of robots will become more capable and valuable as it grows.
Economies of scale mean that the more robots you build, the less each one costs.
Without the need for fuel and human labour, operating costs can be very low.
Reliability also improves with numbers, for each individual robot but also as the result of deploying slightly more robots than are necessary to complete a job.
All this leads to a virtuous cycle of expanding utility and reduced costs as adoption grows.
The network effect also applies to a growing, global ecosystem of sensor developers, platform manufacturers and integrators who provide creative solutions to diverse market needs in security, offshore industry, science and environmental assessment.
Today, ocean robotics are in the same position as the iPhone was when Apple created it as a platform on which others would innovate and build—applications are at a nascent stage.
This is changing as the underlying technology gains greater capabilities and is produced in greater volume.
It’s an exciting time that will see a new industry of ocean application developers emerge.
The digital ocean will underpin the blue economy
Imagine an ocean where networks of sensors, manned and unmanned systems, and satellites are connected to give us instant, affordable access to information.
This is the vision for the digital ocean.
It’s not science fiction: it’s a prerequisite for more-effective ocean preservation and economic expansion for the blue economy.
The networked ocean will deliver real-time seismic warnings and more accurate hurricane and cyclone forecasts that will help save lives and economies.
It will help expose illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing (IUU), and trafficking in drugs and people.
Robots already help research, measure, and monitor precious marine ecologies.
In the digital ocean, the insights we gain will foster new scientific discoveries, new job opportunities and new economic growth.
In science fiction, robots don’t run out of power and can communicate from seemingly anywhere.
In reality, powering devices and networking their data takes a lot of effort.
But as these issues are addressed and the market matures, the opportunity for autonomous ocean devices is enormous.
Ocean robotics is at an inflection point where it is ready to enable a safer, sustainable digital ocean.
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