EMRA17

I’m visiting Girona Uni at the moment as part of my sabbatical term, and whilst I’m here I’m trying to expand my horizons a bit academically. SO, this week I attended a workshop on marine robotics, which just happened to be going on whilst I’m here and they let me attend for free. The workshop is for marine robotics, but it is not just a research conference. Attendees come from 30 research centres, and 12 companies. Presentations come from 14 EU projects, 4 national projects, 4 companies. On day one, I saw 16 of the talks and then skipped the rest (including the demo and the dinner) as my folks were visiting and I thought I should probably spend some time with them:-)

Marine robotics is a bit outside my area so it was challenging to sit in and try and follow talks that were at the limits of my knowledge. The conference was also considerably more applied that many of the conferences I go to – companies and researchers working together much more closely, and much more close to product; some of the things presented were research, others were actual pieces of kit that you can buy. The applications varied too from science through to mining. The EU funding that supports these systems is really driving forward innovation in a collaborative way – many of the projects involved tens of institutions, from university research teams through SMEs to big companies.

The keynote came from Lorenzo Brignone, IFREMER lab, which is the French research centre that deals with oceanographic stuff. They have quite a fleet (7 research vessels), with manned submersibles, ROVs (Remote operated vehicles), and AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles), and a hybrid HROV (AUV/ROV) which is the topic of the keynote. Brignone works in the underwater systems unit, which is mostly made up of engineering. The key problem is that of working reliably underwater near boats which don’t have dynamic positioning – the surface vehicle might move hundreds of metres, so we need to have an ROV that is more independent in order to carry out scientific missions reliably. The design includes the whole system, with on-ship electronics, tether, traction, and a weighted underwater station which includes a fibre-optic link to the HROV. This lets the hybrid system work with vessles of opportunity, rather than waiting for science boats to become ready. Two DVL (doppler velocity log) systems give accurate underwater location. Final output is a semi autonomous vehicle which can be worked by general users (the engineers don’t even have to be on the boat).

The next morning talk covered the DEXrov project, which is looking at systems which can control dextrous robots at a distance (hopefully onshore, removing the cost of hiring a boat). The aim is to get robots that can interact underwater, like divers can. This is controled by an exoskeleton based system – basically, the operator wears an arm and hand exoskeleton which the robot then mimics.

SWARMS – smart and networking underwater robotics in cooperation meshes. 31 partner consortium, looking at networking tech as well as the robotics tech. The project is also developing middleware which will let various heterogenous systems (UAVs, ROVs, misssion control, boats) cooperate. Underwater acoustic network links to wireless on the surface.

Next up Laurent Mortier from the BRIDGES project, which is a big h2020 project (19 partners including 6 SMEs) looking at glider technology. These systems are very low power underwater vehicles which can cover very long journeys, collecting data. Gliders create small changes in buoyancy, using wings to drive themselves forwards. This project looks to increase the depth that gliders can work at, which enables a greater range of scientific questions to be answered. The kind of data they look for depends on the payload, which can be scientific, or commercial (searching for things like leaks from undersea hydrocarbons, finding new oilfields).

Carme Paradeda of Ictineu submarines presented next, on moving from from a manned submarine to underwater robots, in a commercial setting. http://www.ictineu.net/en/ is their website, and they’ve invested 3 million euros, and more than 100,000 hours of R and D went into the creation of their submarine. This is a manned submarine which involved developing new battery technology as part of the project, safer batteries for operating at high pressure.

Marc Tormer of SOCIB (a Balaeric islands research centre) also talked about gliders. Aim is to change the paradigm of ocean observation: from intermittent missions on expensive research vessels, to continuous observations from multiple systems including gliders.

Graham Edwards from TWI (The Welding Institute) talked about ROBUST H2020 project. This project addresses seabed mining. Resources they’re looking for are manganese nodules, which can be found also looking cobalt crusts and sulphide springs. The system uses laser spectrography on an AUV with 3d acoustic mapping tech, to try and get away from the problems associated with dredging.

Pino Casalino, University of Genova (ISME) had the last slot before lunch talking about an Italian national project MARIS working towards robot control systems for marine intervention. This provided another overview of a big multi site project, looking at vision, planning and robot control. I have to admit that at this point my attention was beginning to wander.

One group photo and a very pleasant lunch later (I declined the option of a glass of wine, but did take advantage of the cheesecake and the espresso machine) we were back for an afternoon of talks.

The difficult post-lunch slot fell to Bruno Cardeira, from the Instituto Superior Técnico (Lisbon) talking about the MEDUSA deep sea AUV. This project was joint Portugal-Norway with a lot of partners, looking at deep sea AUVs, in order to survey remote areas up to 3000m depth. They wanted to do data collection and water column profiling, resource exploration, and habitat mapping, with the aim to open up new sea areas for economic exploitation.

Bruno also presented a hybrid AUV/ROV/Diver navigation system, the Fusion ROV which is a commercial product. This talk had a lot of videos with a loud rock soundtrack, which is one way to blow people out of their post-lunch lull, I guess.

The next talk came from Chiara Petroli, of the University of La Sapienza (Rome) talking about the SUNRISE project, working on internet of things wrt underwater robotics. Underwater networking, in a heterogeneous environment. Long distance, low cost, energy efficient, secure comms… underwater. Where of course wifi doesn’t really work. Dynamic, adaptive protocols which use largely acoustic communications have been developed.

Unfortunately by the end of this talk we were already running 15 minutes late (after just two talks). So the desire for coffee was running high in the audience, and I think I detected a snore or two.

Andrea Munafo from the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, talking about the OCEANIDS project sponsored by the UK’s NERC (natural environment research council). This program is building some new ROVs which will enable long range and autonomous missions. One of these ROVs is called Boaty McBoatface.

The last talk from this session came from Ronald Thenius, of Uni Graz, talking about Subcultron, a learning, self-regulating, self-sustaining underwater culture of robots. 7 partners from 6 countries, aiming to monitor the environment in the Venice lagoon using the worlds’ largest robot swarm using energy autonomy and energy harvesting. Because Venice is big and has a lot of humans, the cultural aspect is quite important. Players: 5 aPads, (inspired by lilies, has solar cells, radio comms), 20 aFish (inspired by fish, moves around, communicates), and 120 aMussels (inspired by clams, many sensors, passive movement, NFC, energy harvesting). I liked this talk a lot.

Post coffee break, it was the turn of Nikola Miskovic, from the University of Zagreb, talking about cooperative AUVs which can communicate with divers using hand gestures and tablets. The project (CADDY – autonomous diving buddy) allowed a number of advances, including the way that the diver could use Google maps underwater. “The biggest challenge when you do experiments with humans and robots is the humans“:-)

Jörg Kalwa, ATLAS ELEKTRONIK GMBH spoke on the SeaCat story – from toy to product. UAV/ROV hybrid with variable payload. This grew out of various precursor systems (experimental and military) – the talk covered the various robots which are ancestors of the current ROV. The current incarnation is a commercial robot which does pretty much everything you might want an ROV to do, but the price point is pretty high.

The penultimate talk is from Eduardo Silva, ISEP / INESC TEC in Porto (Portugal), talking about underwater mining, in flooded opencast mines. Project has a great acronym – Viable Alternative Mine Operating System or VAMOS. Big project (17 partners from 9 countries). This project has a bunch of collaborating robots including UAVs which look like the many of the others (torpedo like), and other underwater vehicles which look a lot more like mining vehicles – tracked tanks, with massive drills and so on.

The day finished with the European Robotics League – a UEFA champions league for robotics. Service robots, industry robots, outdoor robots. This talk came from Gabriele Ferri, CMRE. Emergency robotics, combining ground underwater and air robots cooperating in a disaster response scenario. Mission is to find missing workers (mannequins) and bring them an emergency kit, survey the area, and stem the leak by closing a stop cock.

To be honest, my take home from this workshop is: underwater robots are cool, and brexit is an awesomely stupid idea.

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