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Marine innovation drives demand for new sensor technology

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

With oceans covering 71% of the Earth’s surface, sensor technology has long played a key role in their exploration, helping to gather valuable data about our marine environment. Today, with marine technology becoming more and more sophisticated, and with commercial fleets and offshore installations needing to maximise their efficiency, a new wave of sensor technologies is emerging with the capability to gather data automatically and transmit it in real time.

Within the commercial shipping sector, remote sensing is allowing vessels to develop into interconnected networks, with equipment which can monitor its own status and condition, and can notify the crew if any action is required, such as maintenance or repairs. In this way, sensors will help operators to manage their assets more effectively and get a better return on their investment. Increasingly, modern ships will have their key functions linked through the Internet of Things so that many onboard processes can happen automatically, and sensors will be the crucial link in this chain.

For example, on container ships it is now possible to install sensors within each individual container to monitor key measure such as temperature and humidity. These can help to improve the conditions in which goods such as foodstuffs are transported, reducing spoilage and improving profitability for the operator.

Over time, sensor technology is opening up new ways of managing commercial fleets. The data that is being gathered and transmitted makes it possible for land-based teams to monitor and direct their ships at sea. More advanced route planning can be implemented which can deliver significant fuel savings. It is possible for ships to be tracked live and their information shared with others, so that their locations can be predicted and the risk of collisions minimised. As the laws governing commercial shipping get tighter, sensor data will also enable operators to demonstrate that they are complying with all the necessary statutory requirements.

For installations at sea, such as wind turbines or wave generators, sensors can monitor the equipment and the conditions in which it is operating. The weather, the tides, wave strength, the stresses being put on the equipment and the properties of the seawater itself can all be measured and the data sent via satellite to centres based on shore for analysis and action. There is also research being done to assess the impact of marine life on offshore installations, using sonar, video, electromagnetic field sensors and tactile sensors.

In Australia, a system has been trialled at Bondi Beach which uses sonar imaging to detect any large sharks that are close to shore and then sends an immediate alert to lifeguards via an app on their phones.

The applications of sensor technology are now so diverse that this is bound to be a key area of opportunity for marine businesses over the coming years. There will be great potential for those marine technology businesses that can develop sensors for specialised uses, improve the accuracy of sensors used in challenging sea conditions, offer better ease of use or ease of installation, and invent miniaturised versions of sensors which can be deployed at scale and more easily embedded in equipment.

The new generation of sensor technology will also create demand for improved software systems to process the wealth of new information and specialised cyber security systems to help protect this valuable resource.

Sensor technology is an exciting area that is developing into an important worldwide market, offering huge scope for innovative marine technology businesses who really understand the needs of their customers.