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A fleet of marine robots is being launched in the largest deployment of its kind in British waters. Unmanned boats and submarines will travel 500km (300 miles) across an area off the southwestern tip of the UK. The aim is to test new technologies and to map marine life in a key fishing ground.
In total, seven autonomous machines are being released in a trial heralded as a new era of robotic research at sea. Two of the crafts are innovative British devices that are designed to operate for months using renewable sources of power including wind and wave energy.
The project, led by the National Oceanography Center, involves more than a dozen research centers and specialist companies.
Data about the oceans is usually gathered by a combination of satellites, buoys and research ships, but all three have limitations in their coverage, and large crewed vessels are particularly expensive.
The motivation for exploring the use of massed robotic vehicles is to assess whether they can provide near-constant coverage at far lower cost – the equivalent of CCTV offering round-the-clock surveillance.
The target for the deployment is an area of ocean marking the boundary between Atlantic waters and tidal waters from the English Channel – what’s known as an ocean front.
Instruments will record key parameters of the ocean, ranging from the concentrations of plankton to the clicks and whistles of dolphins and porpoises. Cameras on the surface vehicles will also attempt to capture images of seabirds and other marine life.
Until now, companies developing robotic vehicles for use at sea have focused on military and commercial customers such as the US Navy and oil and gas companies, and American firms have dominated the market for automated submarines.
The British government’s hope is that the UK may become a leader in unmanned surface machines – robotic boats – which can act as drones gathering information to help weather forecasters or do conservation work.