Robotics and autonomous systems are championed as one of the UK government’s ‘Eight Great Technologies’. The growth this industry is beginning to see opens up a world of opportunity to not only businesses but to the economy in the form of exports; career opportunities; technology and innovation.
Maritime Autonomous Systems (MAS) come in various shapes and sizes and can operate both below and on the surface. The very nature of an autonomous system means there are no people on board; they can be deployed at sea to simply act as a human’s eyes and ears in the ocean carrying sensors and transmitters completing any job that is deemed too dull, too dirty or too dangerous.
Any Maritime Autonomous System, an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV), a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) or an Autonomous Surface Vehicle (ASV) is more than just a ‘vehicle’. In order to work successfully it needs sensors; communications; software and operators. In the UK alone there are an abundance of companies ready to offer these services. There are sensor manufacturers as well as distributors with the latest in sensor technology, communications specialists, platform manufacturers, software providers and a long list of commercial and defence users and operators.
Research and Development
Government funded projects are actively encouraging collaborative working across organisations with an interest or involvement in Maritime Autonomy. In line with policy to propel the development of robotics and autonomous systems, in 2014 it was announced that government departments were injecting £9 million worth of funding into the future of Maritime Autonomous Systems. Supported by Dstl, Innovate UK, Solent LEP, and NERC the various programmes each address different areas covering the wide spectrum of activities concerning Maritime Autonomous Systems.
Funded projects are just one way to foster cross-collaboration between academia and industry. In late 2015 the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) opened the doors to a brand new £3 million Marine Robotics Innovation Centre. The new centre is set to be a hub for businesses developing autonomous platforms with novel sensors that will be used to cost-effectively capture data from the world’s oceans. Companies have already taken space at the new centre including ASV Ltd, SeeByte and Planet Ocean.
As well as hosting the Marine Robotics Innovation Centre, the NOC owns its own fleet of ASVs, each with different specifications and capabilities. The fleet includes a C-Enduro ASV, an AutoNaut, a Liquid Robotics SV3 Wave Glider as well as various AUVs, ROVs and gliders. Both the C-Enduro and AutoNaut were developed under a competition for smaller UK companies to design and develop innovative new Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASVs). Initiated by NOC, the SBRI was funded by NERC, Dstl and Innovate UK.
A whole new career path
The required skills base for Maritime Autonomous Systems is not just limited to design and build; support tasks including operation, maintenance, sales and marketing are just as important. The successful provision of MAS is reliant on a full lifecycle.
Many universities across the country are now running their own marine robotics research programmes. The Edinburgh Centre for Robotics run by Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh recognises the huge potential for growth offered by the Marine Robotics market and aims to train its students ready to enter this emergent market place. Heriot-Watt University operates its own fleet of marine robotic systems for students to operate. In April 2014 it was announced that Heriot-Watt had taken delivery of a C-Enduro ASV to add to its fleet.
The future for the UK Maritime Autonomy Hub
The UK has a strong foundation for a competitive edge in the provision of Maritime Autonomous Systems. Interest and involvement is coming from all angles: industry, universities, research institutions and various government departments. As this market continues to grow, sustaining this advantage will become important. So far, the collaborative approach taken towards this industry is working well and long may it continue.
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