Imagine you want to monitor the impact of climate change on coral reefs. How would you obtain regular near-seabed surveys? The ATOM project develops a multi-robot system for Autonomous Tandem Ocean Mapping, addressing the need for cost-effective solutions to survey the seafloor or underwater structures. ATOM combines an autonomous surface vessel (ASV) with an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) carrying an underwater hyperspectral imager (UHI). The UHI is a camera system that gathers data across the visible color and near-infrared spectrums. This data is used to detect biological and chemical characteristics of seabed habitats or underwater structures. Thus we create a "swiss army knife for ocean mapping" capable of wide-ranging applications from environmental surveys to identification of underwater objects.
Today, maritime mapping and inspection tasks are typically performed by manned surface vessels, at times using remotely operated vehicles controlled by human operators. Replacing the manned vessel with a smaller ASV is of high economic interest, as this is often the highest cost of marine operations. By combining ASVs with AUVs it is possible to perform automated mapping or inspection tasks without a continuous need for a manned vessel. It also allows operators to stay on shore, increasing operator safety. Finally, by reducing dependence on surface ships, where fuel usage is often tons of liters of diesel per day, ATOM is also more environmentally friendly.
The ATOM project develops software and hardware for collaborative control of the unmanned systems, with adaptive mission planning - where the movements of the ASV and AUV are adapted and optimized based on the data that is being gathered. The UHI sensor will be enhanced to make it easier to obtain high quality and interpretable data. ATOM can thus bridge a substantial gap in the currently available subsea sensing systems by providing cost-effective alternatives for near-seabed coastal and offshore surveys.
Results up til now: The ATOM project started in January 2021. Since then, the consortium has been working hard to put all pieces into place for the multi-robot survey solution. The focus so far has to a large extent been on hardware developments. Maritime Robotics (MR) has been working on the design and prototyping of a launch and recovery system for the ROV, as well as on software development for the integration of a USBL positioning sensor that will locate the ROV. Developments have also been made to establish a secure and reliable protocol for inter-vehicle communication between MR and Skarv Technologies. This is a critical step for collaborative and efficient data collection.
Skarv Technologies has developed an autonomous tethered underwater vehicle based on the BlueROV platform. The vehicle was designed to carry the UHI and a custom light rig to optimize the quality of the collected data. To enable autonomous missions, Skarv Technologies has developed a guidance and navigation system for the underwater vehicle. The developed vehicle is a highly advanced sensor platform, with a small size, which enables detailed underwater mapping in areas which have otherwise been hard to survey. The prototype of the underwater vehicle was demonstrated in a commercial project for the Bergen municipality through a project called Renere havn Bergen, where the city fjord Store Lungegårdsvann was surveyed.
Ecotone has developed a reflectance estimation method based on preliminary light models, which will soon be tested with real-world examples. Furthermore, they have created a lighting system for the UHI, conducted measurements of the new light source, and are ready to implement and incorporate the new light model into the reflectance estimation.
The ATOM project will create a marine multi-vehicle sensor system combining an unmanned surface platform (USV) with an unmanned underwater platform (UUV) carrying an underwater hyperspectral imager (UHI). The combined system will be specialized for subsea surveys to enable end users to cost-effectively run frequent surveys both in mid water and at the sea floor. The system will autonomously survey specified target areas without operator intervention, while providing live data streams. The system will be a “swiss army knife of ocean exploration” and constitutes a fundamental shift in ocean sensing practices for the following reasons:
* It creates the ability to rapidly carry, deploy & recover a sensor-carrying platform at depth and over large areas.
* It ensures high bandwidth data and power link from air to seabed, extending communications from sensors such as the UHI to the surface.
* It enables autonomous operation and optimization of data collection without surface ships or human interaction.
ATOM thus develops the first system to autonomously deploy and recover underwater platforms with hyperspectral sensors, capable of a wide range of applications, from environmental surveys to identification of objects based on their reflective properties.