Sneak peek: World’s first long-range autonomous research vessel

Plymouth Marine Laboratory has revealed designs for what is said to be the world’s first long-range autonomous research vessel, capable of collecting data for research into climate change, biodiversity, fisheries and biogeochemistry.

Plymouth Marine Laboratory
Source: Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Plymouth-based M SUBS Ltd was commissioned to design the 24-meter Oceanus, a fully uncrewed vessel said to be designed as self-righting, light-weight and mono-hulled and capable of carrying an array of monitoring sensors.

Designed primarily to make the transatlantic sampling voyage from the UK to the Falklands, Oceanus will carry an advanced scientific payload and use the latest AI technology to help navigate the best course to its target location, with real-time input from weather forecasts and other marine data feeds, Plymouth Marine Laboratory said.

The development is supported by seed funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Source: Plymouth Marine Laboratory

The idea for the vessel was born in the wake of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship. The name Oceanus was the name of the first child to be born on the original Mayflower in 1620.

“This is a hugely exciting venture, with the capacity to revolutionize the way we carry out marine research expeditions and support the drive towards net zero,” said Icarus Allen, chief executive of Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

“The Oceanus will exploit the very latest in AI technology, enabling us to push the frontiers of marine science and open up new opportunities in how we monitor the ocean environment. Not that long ago this would have been the stuff of science fiction fantasy but through the design and development of the Oceanus we are really unlocking the future of ocean-going marine research.”

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While it will feature a fuel-efficient diesel engine, Oceanus will be complemented by onboard micro-energy generation devices and solar panels on the deck. With the weight of people and living facilities also removed this is expected to greatly reduce fuel consumption compared to traditional manned research vessels.

The vessel’s Command Centre will be hosted at PML and will display oceanographic conditions in near-real-time across its transect, providing scientists and other users with open access to the latest oceanographic data.

According to Plymouth Marine Laboratory, in situ sampling will still sometimes be needed to validate the autonomously collected data and to perform more complex monitoring and experiments that require proximity to the sample sources, however, autonomy on this scale will allow for radically more responsive and more frequent data collections at a wider range than currently possible, helping to plug any gaps in datasets and greatly improve marine modeling.

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