Asymmetric Dialogue

Automated sea vehicles for monitoring the oceans



A new company from ESA's UK business incubator has developed an autonomous boat that is propelled by the waves and carries ocean sensors powered by solar energy.

Advances in ocean monitoring are improving our understanding of the seas and environment, including marine life, sea temperatures, pollution and weather. However, fuel, maintenance and manpower for research ships are costly, and sea conditions restrict where measurements can be made.

The AutoNaut start-up from ESA's Business Incubation Centre in Harwell has come up with a revolutionary automated surface vessel to collect data for long periods at a fraction of the cost.

The vessel is propelled by a unique wave foil that harvests energy from the natural pitching and rolling at sea. Speeds of 2-5.5 km/h are maintained under most sea conditions.

It is one of the world's first small commercial applications of wave propulsion and it can operate at sea for many weeks at a time, covering hundreds of kilometres in a week in areas and conditions too hazardous for humans.

It is so quiet that it can measure the whistles and clicks of dolphins over large areas. Using satellite networks, the AutoNaut receives its instructions from anywhere in the world. It can carry cutting-edge, solar-powered sensors to capture raw measurements, process the data onboard and then send them back to the operators via satellite.

"If a satellite radar picks up suspected oil spills, our AutoNaut can verify it on the spot, map the extent and take water measurements for relay back to shore," said Phil Johnson from the company.

The team recently completed its two-year incubation at the ESA centre. There, they used highly specialised satellite navigation and communication systems to refine their navigation and control capabilities, and deliver near-realtime data collected from the sensors.

Backed by ESA's 41 500 pound grant and business support, Autonaut has already taken part in a number of missions with the Royal Navy, the National Oceanographic Centre, the UK Met Office, and offshore engineering industries.

"AutoNaut is revolutionary and will help us to better understand our environment at a fraction of the cost of manned technologies," said company director David Maclean.

"Our society and economy rely on accurate data sourced from our oceans on a consistent and non-interfering basis, and having access to the business support, technology and expertise has made a massive difference to us in our journey towards commercialising our product."

Sue O'Hare, operations manager of ESA BIC Harwell, added, "AutoNaut is an inspirational example of how space and technology can be applied to address our research and industrial challenges.

"Turning a game-changing idea like this into a viable commercial reality is a massive challenge in itself. I'm thrilled that we have provided AutoNaut with the right environment to do this, and I wish them every success as they take their business to the next level."

ESA has 18 centres throughout Europe helping entrepreneurs and start-ups to spin-off space technology and to exploit satellite data for new terrestrial applications.

More than 600 start-ups have been fostered and each year another 145 join the centres.