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The exciting future for marine robotics

By Matt Hodson, Marine Hub Operations Director, Cornwall Development Company

The ground-breaking developments that are taking place in marine robotics are opening up completely new ways of working in our oceans. The use of robotics allows the marine industry to take on some daunting challenges and discover imaginative new techniques to solve them. The incredible pace of change in this area of marine technology has been accelerated by advances in robot technology, improvements in efficiencies and the lowering of costs. Furthermore, the UK and Ireland are emerging as leaders in this type of marine innovation.

In shipping, there are number of brilliant new robotics systems currently being developed. In the USA, the Naval Research Laboratory has built a prototype of a firefighting robot, which would work alongside humans in tackling and suppressing fires on board. Although this is initially being developed for the Navy, it could also be deployed in commercial shipping. Other new technologies currently at the prototype stage include inspection robots which would scan cargo ships for signs of corrosion and cracks and hull cleaning robots which would reduce fuel consumption by keeping the surface of the hull clear of derbis. In the near future, we could also see maintenance robots which would carry out tasks such as welding and repairs.

Automated systems and robotics are already transforming modern shipbuilding, performing functions such as welding and heavy lifting. Geoje Shipyard in South Korea is regarded as one the world’s most efficient shipbuilding facilities. It has the highest level of automation in the industry, with 68% of its production processes being carried out by robotic systems. These include a ‘spider robot’ which autonomously crawls over the surface of a ship and blasts off any rust or contaminants in order to prepare it for painting.

Perhaps the boldest new concept in commercial shipping is the work currently being done by Rolls-Royce to develop a fully autonomous cargo ship which would require no crew on board. The ship would be commanded through an operating centre via a satellite link. On board sensors would monitor the weather and sea conditions and make the necessary course adjustments automatically. As well as being cheaper and more efficient to run, Rolls-Royce believe that such ships would be safer – at least 75% of marine accidents are the result of human error. And this isn’t science fiction - ships like these could be operational within the next ten years.

As the range of marine technology activities being conducted in our oceans continues to grow, so it is fuelling the demand for more sophisticated marine robotics to carry out a wide range of tasks and operations at sea. This field now encompasses remote controlled robots and also surface vessels and undersea vessels that can carry out tasks autonomously.

Marine robotics craft have been used for some years in underwater surveying and exploration and have been deployed in the offshore oil and gas industry. As the complexity of offshore marine developments increases, robotics will play a bigger and bigger role in the construction, maintenance, repair and monitoring of new offshore installations such as those needed for wave and tidal energy.

There is obviously a cost-saving factor in these types of marine innovation. Using groups of robotic vessels can enable one person to efficiently control a multitude of tasks. However, there is also an important safety element. Marine robotics can operate in hazardous seas while avoiding risks to human life.

This is an area of marine technology that is developing at a rapid rate and it therefore offers up opportunities for businesses who can rise to the challenge of helping to build new and improved systems. Users of marine robotics will be looking for enhanced performance in a number of areas. There will be demand from innovative businesses who can deliver increased robustness and endurance, improved battery technology, flexibility and adaptability, better sensor technology, devices that are easier to deploy at sea, enhanced interoperability, and specialist expertise in the piloting of these vessels.

Smaller, agile businesses will have a vital role to play in the development of this sector of marine innovation, from designing complete systems to engineering the specialised components needed for their construction.

For all these reasons, marine robotics is set to become one of the most diverse and dynamic growth markets in marine technology over the coming years.

You can find out more about marine robotics and artificial intelligence and meet with some of the leading industry experts at our Discovery Room Event on Wednesday 22nd November 2017. For full details and to register, see the Event here