Fish-tracking mission successfully completed by Ocean-going robot fleet

By Curious

The Exploring Ocean Fronts project’s second phase has recently been completed. The project’s objective is to collect valuable data regarding ocean processes and marine life via a fleet of innovative marine robots. It was co-ordinated by the National Oceanography Centre (NOC). The project was conducted off southwest England and it involved the biggest deployment of robotic vehicles ever attempted in the United Kingdom’s waters.

The marine robots are controlled via satellite communications and are powered by combining wave, wind and solar power. They can cover hundreds of kilometers in just a single mission attempt.

In the project’s second part, three unmanned surface vehicles were used in order to track fish carrying acoustic ‘pingers’ off the Devon coast. The mission involved the tagging and releasing of 85 fish that included rays, sole and plaice. It was conducted with the intention of understanding how these fish use the Marine Protected Areas. The roaming marine robots had to carry acoustic receivers and work alongside several fixed receivers on the seabed so that they could track fish movements inside and outside of the protected areas.

NOC wave glider rough seas

Waveglider riding rough seas. Credits: NOC

Professor David Sims of the MBA commented:

“The marine robots located successfully tagged fish and managed to track the movements of individual fish over a span of several days because they were able to relocate them. This mission demonstrated the vast potential of ocean robots regarding the monitoring process of dynamic changes in distributions of commercially important fish, which will underpin efficient management and understanding of climate change effects.”

The robots were also equipped with camera devices so they were able to successfully image a variety of marine wildlife that included porpoises and gannets. This is the first time the NOC’s robotic vehicles, operating far from land, have managed to capture marine life and it demonstrates the enormous potential for surveying areas of the ocean that are otherwise rarely visited by research vessels.

The project’s first phase revolved around the robot vehicles heading up to 150 kilometres off the shore of the Isles of Scilly over a period of two weeks. Despite the harsh weather conditions that included severe autumn storms, the robots managed to continue collecting high-quality data that has given researchers valuable insight regarding the effect of stormy weather on ocean processes and marine life in general. Dr. Maaten Furlong, Head of NOC’s Marine Autonomous Robotics Systems group, commented that these missions are a clear example of the marine robots’ potential and ability to travel hundreds of kilometres in harsh and demanding weather conditions. He added that even though some of the vehicles were impacted by the weather situation, it is still a positive due to the fact that now they have a better understanding of piloting in rough conditions.

The projects was carried out by the National Oceanography Centre, in partnership with another 20 organizations that represent the marine robotics industry, research organizations and marine data users like the UK Met office and the Royal Navy. Dr. Russell Wynn of NOC, scientific coordinator of the project commented :

"Overall this has been a very successful project as we have managed to collect a vast amount of valuable scientific and engineering information. Us working together and sharing our resources enabled us to develop a solid UK community in the field of marine robotic operations are now we are preparing plans for more joint mission in the near future."

Video Exploring Ocean Fronts Phase2