Unmanned Missions in Harsh Environments
The Autonomous Oceans Systems Laboratory (AOSL) is a research facility within Memorial University’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, which was founded in 2010 by Engineering Professor Dr. Ralf Bachmayer, its current Director. Masters and Doctoral students from the university play a key role in driving AOSL’s research and development, which is focused on the advancement of persistent unmanned systems technology in harsh environments. This includes exploring new and innovative ways to utilize autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), unmanned surface craft (USC) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in cold and harsh environments with sea ice and icebergs.
“Autonomous vehicles don’t complain about the temperatures being minus-ten and the wind being 70 knots, but that’s exactly when you need to make the measurements,” says Department Head of Physics and Physical Oceanography, Dr. Brad de Young, explaining that it is critical to understand the most extreme conditions that will be present when considering ventures into harsh, ice prone environments like the Arctic.
AOSL researchers are developing technology that will extend the mission duration of AUVs and utilize bathymetry and GPS to accurately track their location, in addition to technology that will allow for navigation of AUVs underneath ice where GPS position fixes at the surface cannot be used to update navigation of the vehicle. This has been a key area of research for Ph.D student, Brian Claus.
“If you want to travel underneath the ice, then you’re not able to stick your tail out of the water and connect to those (GPS) satellites,” explains Claus. “So the focus of my thesis was to be able to run the AUVs underneath the ice where we don’t have that corrective GPS signal anymore.”
The proposed answer involves taking a sequence of altitude measurements and comparing back to a map to determine the AUV’s location. It is a similar system to that which is used to navigate cruise missiles. All of AOSL’s research is driven by the desire – and the need – to attain more data in hard-to-reach areas of the ocean, such as those found in the Arctic. This includes projects such as acoustic measurement of sea ice thickness and mapping icebergs both above and under water.
“One of things we’re interested in is observation of icebergs and sea ice,” says Dr. de Young. “Ships are not always in the right place at the right time and don’t always have the right instruments on board to make the kinds of measurements we want. An iceberg is mostly underwater and underwater is the hardest place to make the measurements.”
By utilizing a smart surface vehicle in unison with the AUVs, algorithms can be fed back and forth and 3D mapping of the iceberg can be achieved both above and below the water. The data can then be analyzed onshore to more accurately predict how the iceberg will react and where it will move, taking into account its shape and size in addition to factors such as sea state, water current, and weather conditions.
“Better observations make better strategies for managing the ice,” says Dr. de Young, adding that the ability to replace ships – which have their limitations in environments like the Arctic – with autonomous vehicles offers a great deal of opportunity to better understand any threats to operations such as offshore oil and gas platforms. Mitigation strategies can then be employed, enabling operations to continue undisturbed.
Dr. de Young says there is no better place than Newfoundland and Labrador to conduct this kind of research and development.
“What you have here are real opportunities to study a sub-polar environment where you can live year-round, have good technical access, and where there’s a lot of support, as opposed to in the high Arctic and the open ocean, where it’s very difficult to work.”
AOSL is one among many examples of world-class ocean technology research that is being conducted in Newfoundland and Labrador, contributing to the province’s status as the World’s Cold Ocean LaboratoryTM and the Path to the ArcticTM.