Scottish Marine Robotics Facility
The harshness of the marine environment and the difficulty of accessing our seas and oceans remains a major constraint on our ability to gain knowledge of marine systems. But modern technology increasingly allows us to make in situ observations in even the most challenging environments - often from afar.
We have a number of smart observation platforms, and a highly skilled and experienced workforce that develops new solutions and adapts existing technologies that drive the science of our oceans forward.
Scot-MRF delivers National Capability to NERC in the areas of development, testing and ready-to-go operational deployment of autonomous gliders, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA).
If you are affiliated with NERC then please contact us at email@example.com to discuss how we can support your research.
For technical discussions please contact the lead person identified for each technique. If you would like a commercial quote for hiring equipment or for other contract discussion, please contact SRSL.
RPA, previously known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, are aircraft that fly without an on-board pilot. The term can refer to anything from radio controlled helicopters that can fit in the palm of your hand to high altitude, long endurance (HALE) aircraft weighing over 14 tonnes.
A number of recent advances in technology have enabled simple and cheap "electric" RPA. These aircraft use light weight batteries and carrying miniaturised sensors, loggers or cameras. They have found favour with both research groups and hobbyist in part because of their simplicity (and therefore low cost) but also because, if designed with a take-off weight < 20kg (small-RPA), the legislation for legal operation is relatively straightforward to accommodate*.
It is this small-RPA technology that has been adopted by the environmental research community to make measurements that were previously difficult or even impossible. A few that SAMS aim to study are:
- Aerial survey (photogrammetry) under low cloud,
- Polar sea-ice extent in winter,
- Turbulence inside wind farms,
- Meteorological profiling on small islands or even in the middle of a loch.
To attain RPA capability, SAMS has worked to acquired not only suitable RPA the technology, but has invested in SAMS RPA Flight: the crew and facilities to operate RPA safely, legally. SAMS RPA Flight work with the scientist to plan measurements campaign, whilst engaging with sensor engineers and the CAA to ensure mission success.
* RPA are more than mere radio controlled aircraft. According to CAA regulation, an RPA is still an aeroplane, and must be flown in a manner that can be proven to incur a similar level of risk as piloted aircraft. This means a careful consideration of flying mass (i.e. take off weight), air-space, surface habitation, airframe and control reliability and so forth. If the flying mass is small (e.g. less than a goose), then its risk to habitation or other aircraft is also small. Add in simple but sensible communication and control protocols and risk is deemed acceptable.
SAMS has a long history of producing drifting platforms for a variety of purposes and has been active in developing many of the techniques used in drifter development such as satellite communications and advanced GPS techniques. We have significant experience not only with various types of telemetery needed for drifter technology but also a pool of expertise in the areas of automated collection, processing and real-time presentation of incoming data.
Present drifter work includes development of a fleet of low-cost semi-expendable tracking buoys to monitor coastal currents. These use mobile phone technology as it is extremely cost effective in terms of hardware and data transfer.
Such drifters have been successfully deployed in the 'Great Race, a turbulent area of sea near Oban which warrants investigation of the substantial system of tidal currents it contains.
Our Drifting Ears are boat-free, mobile recording systems that include a sound recorder, GPS and power supply packed into a small floating case attached to an underwater microphone.
They are used to collect and measure underwater sound in different environments particularly one experiencing rapid tidal flows - for example at candidate sites for deployment of renewable marine energy devices.
Drifting Porpoise Detectors (DPDs)
The Drifting Porpoise Detector concept uses off-the-shelf passive acoustic detectors attached to coastal drifters to survey rapid tidal flows for harbour porpoise presence and distribution.
This allows us to determine how tidal cycles influence how these and other small cetaceans use tidal flow sites – and how this might be impacted by future tidal energy devices.
Sites studied so far include Kyle Rhea (pictured) and the Gulf of Corryvreckan.
Another current area of work is to produce free drifting buoys which can tolerate the freezing conditions of polar oceans and withstand the forces encountered when sea ice is forming or breaking up.
Such buoys can monitor both the formation and decay of sea ice. Initial trials look encouraging and further work is under way to produce improved designs.
In the pipeline
Future work is envisaged in the area of ocean drifters for high resolution measurement of sea-surface temperatures using the novel thermometer chains developed at SAMS for monitoring sea ice.
SAMS has a long record of producing novel sensors and platforms for polar deployment, particularly for the difficult environment of sea ice. Previous work has included simple tracking buoys for monitoring ice movement and tilt buoys to detect wave motion amplitude and wavelengths in the ice (proxys for average ice thickness).
Ice Mass Balance buoys and other current developments
More recent work has been the development of Ice Mass Balance buoys which monitor ice thickness using a novel and low-cost thermometer chain developed by us (images below).
Also, efforts to produce an under-ice profiler capable of measuring the micro-structure of the ocean below sea ice continue.
Current work includes mechanical design of platforms capable of surviving complete cycles of freezing into sea ice and melting out to become free drifting. Such platforms would allow monitoring of the stages of ice formation and melting.
The challenges of powering remote equipment on sea ice is a continual challenge to us and we are producing novel techniques to overcome the problems. The concept of using thermal gradients between winter air temperatures and the relatively warm sea below the ice is being tested as a possible source of power for winter periods and uses thermoelectric components to achieve energy conversion. Also, novel mechanical designs are being developed where batteries are suspended in the sea below the ice rather than in the colder atmosphere where their performance would be compromised.
Using dog sleds for data collection
A team of our researchers developed a new way of measuring Arctic sea-ice thickness: Their scientific equipment was adapted for use by Inuit on their regular hunting journeys. The system was mounted on the Inuit dog-sleds meaning every time a sled was used important scientific information was transmitted, via satellite, back to the Scottish Marine Institute. A two-day trial of the equipment on the sea ice around Qaanaaq (NW Greenland) yielded the equivalent of 20,000 independent ice-thickness measurements. The development means data can be collected throughout the sea-ice growth and melt seasons, rather than just over the few weeks of a field campaign. Sea-ice changes are directly affecting the economy and well-being of many northern indigenous communities. These communities can now help to provide data that scientists and policy-makers urgently need.
to read an article on how we collect data using Inuit dog sleds in
NERC's Planet Earth publication (spring 2011).
Other expertise and facilities
In addition to the development of polar instruments we have considerable expertise in deployment of instruments and the associated logistics in getting people and equipment to very remote polar sites. For testing our polar installations at the institute we have developed a -30oC cold room.
Contact details (technical and scientific questions only)
What is a Glider? A short introduction to all those new to this technology...
Since 2009 SAMS uses Gliders and AUVs to support research projects investigating the oceanography of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.
About underwater gliders
Gliders are buoyancy driven and energy-efficient autonomous vehicles that can undertake independent journeys for up to seven months at depths between the surface and 1000m making continuous measurements of a range of seawater properties. They relay the collected data in real-time to the Institute and communicate with a pilot back at base using an Iridium satellite link. The glider pilot receives position, scientific and technical data and based on this can instruct the glider on waypoints to aim for during its mission.
Although limits in depth range, sensor availability and power supply mean that gliders will supplement rather than fully replace ship borne observations, the novel use of gliders to monitor the state of the global ocean opens up huge opportunities not only for understanding the state of the ocean, but also for undertaking new research that will build on our ability to predict future climate states.
SAMS currently operates seven Seagliders
- Talisker (since 2008)
- Ardbeg (since 2011)
- Scapa (since 2014)
- Laphroaig (since 2014)
- Jura (since 2014)
- Bowmore (since 2014)
- Knockando (since 2014)
View the real-time data.
About the NAGB
The North Atlantic Glider Base welcomes scientists from all over the world to bring Gliders to SAMS for deep water testing, launch and recovery for North Atlantic missions, and for advice on operations and on real-time data delivery. We also provide access to our gliders and AUV for development and trial of new sensors.
The NAGB offers
- Access to laboratory space for pre-mission Glider preparation including ballasting
- Access to coastal research vessels for sheltered deep water testing (to 200 m)
- Access to fast vessels for deployment and recovery for North Atlantic missions
- Advice on scientific and operational aspects of Glider missions
- Advice on software for real-time Glider data delivery to GTS or to data centres
The North Atlantic Glider Base is a delivery partner of the Marine Autonomous Robotic Systems at the National Oceanography Centre and is supported by NERC National Capability funding. As part of our National Capability we offer the above on a free-at-the-point-of-use basis to NERC applicants proposing to use the National MARS facility housed at NOCS. To non-NERC users we offer the above on an appropriately costed basis (contact Dr Keri Wallace for quotes).
SAMS science projects involving gliders
Benthic landers are self-contained platforms designed to work remotely on the seabed, often thousands of metres below the surface. By making measurements in situ at the seafloor instead of bringing samples up to the surface artefacts associated with large pressure and temperature changes can be avoided.
The landers can carry various types of instrument to investigate the seafloor. Each is controlled by an onboard computer, which also stores the data recorded by the instruments in situ. Iron ballast makes the otherwise positively buoyant lander sink down to the seabed. On completion of its mission, an acoustic command is sent from the surface to release the ballast and allow the lander to float back up to the surface.
SAMS is one of the leading institutes on benthic lander technology in the world and hosts several different types of landers for biogeochemical seafloor investigations, including Chamber-, Profiling- and Eddy landers.
Development and innovation
Benthic landers are a relatively new and extremely versatile technology. Our engineers are building landers and developing in situ instruments for a diverse range of scientific applications. Areas of particular interest are:
- provision of two-way acoustic telemetry data link
- active control of in situ experiments in near real time
- high compression slow scan video imagery
- ultra-clean platforms for trace metal studies
- environmentally controlled benthic chambers
- novel sensors for the detection and quantification of specific molecules
Research using lander technology
Our landers are involved in a number of research projects around the world spanning from the high Arctic down to the equatorial Atlantic, and from shallow coastal and estuarine environments down to the deep abyssal plains and ocean trenches.
The landers currently support research on:
- anthropogenic perturbations within the marine environment
- reduction-oxidation chemistry
- carbon cycling
- benthic community structure and response
- tracer studies on biomechanical mixing
- environmental dynamics of cold-water coral reefs
In 2010 we deployed the first geochemistry lander into the Mariana Trench for carbon cycling investigations. More...
Facilities and equipment
A dedicated lander building houses our landers and associated equipment. A laboratory, workshop and storage space with lifting and handling capabilities form the core of this facility. The surrounding waters in our local sea lochs make ideal test sites for landers and other marine technology as they are both sheltered and deep.
The Autonomous Marine Environment Research Stations (AutoMERS) programme was a multi-million pound mult-partner project to develop and test landers and their associated instruments and sensors. Our partners were the Universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews and Bristol.
AUVs travel independently through sea water along pre-programmed pathways while measuring horizontal variations in water properties. In 2009 we purchased our first REMUS AUV.
Rebus is a positively buoyant, 2m long, propeller-driven vehicle used for short-duration (max 10 hours), intensive surveys of the ocean down to 600m over distances of around 70km. The REMUS AUV is designed to measure the amount of small-scale turbulent mixing in the ocean as well as temperature, salinity, water velocity and chlorophyll fluorescence. Rebus has been on missions around Scotland and the Arctic.
Early in 2015 the Scottish Marine Robotics Facility acquired a Gavia Offsore Surveyor autonomous underwater vehicle 'Freya' (named after the Norse goddess of beauty, love and destiny). SAMS hosts this submarine-like robot on behalf of the Marine Autonomous and Robotics community run by NERC.
Freya is designed to be operated from vessels and can dive to depths of 500 m. The Gavia is used to survey and map the seabed and to collect GeoSwath+ bathymetry, side scan and photo mosaic data.
The Gavia AUV is an autonomous sensor platform that is user-configurable by the addition of one or more sensor, navigation or battery modules using a unique twist lock system.
For more information contact Dr John Howe.
The combination of side-scan sonar and multibeam bathymetry provides a powerful seabed mapping tool, not presently available elsewhere within the NERC pool, for identifying the processes that determine the spatial mosaic of bioresources. Used in tandem, this vital survey equipment will digitally acquire seabed morphology and surface sediment, bedform and textural information which can inform interpretations of both habitat and physical environmental conditions on the seafloor.
The Scottish Marine Institute uses a Klein 3000 dual frequency side-scan sonar with Triton workstation and software for both acquisition and processing. The digital side scan will generate acoustic images of the seafloor and its reflectivity, revealing such features as areas of coarse or fine-grained sediments, seabed obstacles, bedforms, therefore enabling sediment transport pathways and anthropogenic impacts to be evaluated.
The multibeam bathymetry provides a highly accurate (<5m resolution) map of seabed morphology. Its use on the UK shelf is currently being realised through extensive mapping for benthic habitats, offshore civil engineering and defence projects and can also be used in the interpretation of the extent and impact of past climatic change (e.g. glaciation by mapping moraine and hence palaeo-ice limits) on the seafloor. This system is ideal for use from the SAMS research vessel Calanus.
Scottish Marine Institute
Oban, Argyll, PA37 1QA
T: 01631 559000
F: 01631 559001