In just a few years, naval robotics underwent a rapid evolution: from focusing almost exclusively on algorithms, it is now ready to implement the so-called USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles). This concept has to do with motorized and fully autonomous drones, even prepared to cross seas and oceans in a sustainable way, or to dive to depths of up to 19,700 feet (6,000 m). In any case, what is naval robotics for exactly?
Giving a proper answer would need more than a single blog post. Anyhow, from GPASEABOATS we will try to summarize which are the main applications of marine robotic vehicles and what improvements they can bring from an economic, social and environmental perspective.
Which are the applications of marine robotics?
One of the characteristics of this discipline is its versatility, by providing solutions in very diverse sectors. In any of them, the use of aquatic drones contributes to obtain data from the seabed that will help decision-making. Here, we enumerate some of the most common naval robotics applications.
Hydrography —the branch of geography that measures and describes the physical features of bodies of water, especially continental water resources— is one of the most popular fields of application for drones. Through the use of technologies based on nautical robotics, the following actions can be carried out:
· Nautical charts, scale graphic representations of a sea area and adjacent coastal regions.
· Bathymetric charts, consisting in maps depicting the submerged topography and physiographic features of ocean and sea bottoms. In the image that follows, we have an example of a multibeam bathymetry carried out in the outer dock of a port.
· Seabed characterization. Without a doubt, studying the particularities of the seabed is essential to guarantee the sustainable management of fishery resources. Likewise, this sort of project is essential to increase knowledge of marine habitats, including ocean deserts or dead zones —the most important of which is the Southern Pacific Gyre, that covers 37 million km2—and Posidonia oceanica meadows (commonly known as Neptune grass or Mediterranean tapeweed), a seagrass species that is endemic to the Mediterranean Sea and cannot be found nowhere else in the world. In this sense, it is worth referring to the meadows that stretch between Ibiza and Formentera, which were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999.
· Water analysis. Increasingly demanding environmental regulations are pushing a growing number of companies and institutions to take systematic samples and analyze the marine waters and sediments in commercial ports and marinas, both with regard to their physicochemical and microbiological features. This task can be carried out safely by employing a USV. The following image shows an analysis of the physical surface water parameters.
· Aquaculture. Aquaculture is a key sector for global economy. With an estimated business volume of 1.4 billion euros in 2025, it is also a basic pillar to guarantee the planet's food resources. In this regard, according to a 2018 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), any future demand for fish will come mainly from aquaculture. Added to this is the weight that this activity acquires in the national GDP of some countries, as in Ecuador or Nicaragua. All this explains the importance of optimizing fish farm performance, improving animal welfare and laying the foundations for a more ethical breeding of fish and shellfish intended for human consumption. Marine robotics is one of the tools that can help the most to enhance the results of this activity.
· Dredging. Dredging is the operation of excavating material from a water environment, which involves the removal of rocks and sediments. The use of aquatic drones allows to know beforehand the characteristics of the seabed and, therefore, to choose the most appropriate strategy and resources. Additionally, USVs can continuously generate a map of the area, which helps to decide how to proceed with dredging at any time.
Visual or ultrasonic inspections
USVs can carry out visual or ultrasound inspections of port structures or other structures commonly related to engineering. Some areas in which naval robotics can be applied are the following:
· Chain and mooring inspections in harbors.
· Port facility security assessment.
· Control on the accumulation of trace elements in the sea bottoms.
· Measuring the impact of storms and natural disasters
Given that current regulations require the hiring of a certain number of divers to carry out these tasks —as long as the process is not automated—, USVs can contribute to a substantial reduction in costs, without compromising the safety of the professionals who participate in these tasks.
The following image shows an example of an anchor inspection with a sonar side scan integrated in a USV.
Today, environmental studies, which are also known as environmental impact assessment (EIA), is the most effective way to prevent damage to the environment and to preserve natural resources during the completion of any project. Generally, environmental studies have their natural scope of application in scientific work and research projects, although this does not exclude other disciplines.
Naval robotics can support environmental studies with these actions:
· Visual inspection of marine habitats.
· Marine habitat mapping.
· Water sampling for the analysis on the physicochemical parameters.
· Aquaculture, to assess the impact of this activity on the environment. This is a key aspect, since, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 85% of the world's marine populations present some degree of overexploitation. All this without forgetting the possible progressive resource degradation in those places that host fish farms.
Search and Rescue (SAR)
Another application of naval robotics has to do with the search of persons and artifacts in aquatic environments, sometimes difficult to access or dangerous for the safety of the people involved. These functions are mainly performed in these two areas:
· Location of persons, generally assumed by emergency services teams and security forces (SF). In this case, a distinction must be made between the physical searches —on the water surface and in the depths— and the technical search, carried out with special equipment. The latter requires a specific work methodology and the participation of specialized and hard-trained staff in risky missions. In both cases, USV devices can be an essential tool. The drones are prepared to do a quick mapping thanks to a multibeam application —covering a very large area in a very short time— to program emergency dives with greater safety, which is a must for the water police forces.
Underwater archaeology. Also called marine archaeology and hydroarchaeology, this discipline encompasses all kinds of archaeological procedures that take place in an aquatic environment (seas, oceans, lakes, rivers, etc.). Its main goal is prospection, location and possible recovery of sunken wrecks, submerged structures or anthropogenic artifacts. In general, underwater archaeology projects are promoted by public administrations, private cultural institutions and universities. On occasions, the location of sunken vessels can have an impact on the tourism sector and on outdoor sports activities (as occurs, for example, with professional associations of diving instructors).
Harbor cleaning up
In addition to its versatility, naval robotics offers numerous advantages over traditional procedures. We list the most notable ones below.
· Reducing the operation costs.
· Reducing maintenance costs.
· Elimination of human risk.
· Elimination of risks from human factors.
· Reduction of response time in terms of mobilization and deployment.
· Faster data acquisition, data processing, obtaining results and associated decision making.
· Easy integration of specific instrumentation: -Single beam echo sounders -Multibeam echo sounder
-Side scan sonar -Three types of cameras (thermal, underwater and for surveillance and control) -Multiparameter probe to measure water parameters (temperature, pressure, conductivity, salinity and turbidity, among others) -Sub-bottom profiler -Sound Velocity Sensor (SVS), Sound Velocity Profiler (SVP) y Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) -Water sampler
-Winches for lowering and retrieving instrumentation into a water column
Do you have questions about what naval robotics is for? Do you need an ad hoc tool for any of the applications described? If so, please feel free to contact us. The GPASEABOTS technical staff will guide you to find the solution that best suits your needs and your budget. Our experts will be happy to assist you.