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Autonomous surface vehicles and the new directions of maritime exploration

01 July 2020
Article by Nuno Mathias, naval engineer at INEGI.

The growth of global interconnection phenomena - whether at the environmental, commercial, leisure or military level - has driven the scientific, commercial and military communities to redirect efforts towards further exploration of the maritime environment1. However, these days, many countries still have a considerable range of their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of maritime space unexplored and unpatrolled.

Despite being increasingly recognized as a critical asset for development, maritime exploration faces several obstacles in terms of accessibility and cost. The absence of presence at sea, therefore, means that it is impossible to stop realities such as overfishing, border violations, pollutants spills, and the inability to guarantee maritime safety2.

Portugal is also not indifferent to these types of phenomena, with the widespread lack of means with which the Portuguese Navy, GNR and the Maritime Police struggle to effectively control the Portuguese EEZ being widely publicized. The economic difficulties of recent years, combined with its extensive area (it is the 3rd largest in the European Union), make this process significantly inefficient.

Robotics at the service of maritime activity

These challenges open the way to investing in new solutions and, recently, we have seen an acceleration in the development of autonomous surface vehicles (USV).

These vehicles, in everything similar to ocean patrol ships (NPO) and patrol boats, allow the monitoring of phenomena that occur at the border, port and coastal level from terrestrial remote control. Due to their characteristics, they are the perfect allies to combat environmental, commercial, border and human crimes committed daily in national and international waters, allowing countries with less economic and financial power to maintain their national and economic sovereignty.

However, its applications are not only on a military level. Currently, a considerable share of the vessels tested support the scientific community in obtaining knowledge in the areas of oceanography (by mapping the seabed and monitoring climate change), marine biology (by sampling and environmental monitoring), naval engineering (by analysis of fractures and shipwreck reasons) and even in maritime archeology (by studying archaeological artefacts and mapping them).

Its use for the detection of pollutants is of equal importance, since it allows a faster and more efficient control, reducing the risk of destruction of ecosystems and habitats, which also serve coastal communities, such as beaches and rivers. Equally beneficial for the environment is the reduction of human intervention in marine ecosystems in the context of other activities.

The list of possible applications is long, and one can also name the support for floating platforms and the search for new marine mineral resources.

Technological advances increase efficiency and reduce costs

INEGI has also followed the development of these vessels and has introduced valid inputs in this field of action in terms of increasing efficiency. One can highlight the creation of more efficient hulls, allowing a reduction in energy consumption of more than 50%. It is also worth mentioning the introduction of auxiliary propulsion and power generation systems by means of hydrofoils, which result in a significant increase in the scope of action of these USVs, thus addressing one of the greatest weaknesses of these equipment.

The participation in projects to develop autonomous vessels for the monitoring and control of the Portuguese coast, is an example of INEGI’s willingness to respond to a challenge that is both national and global, with the knowledge of its specialists being key to take maritime exploration even further.

The advent of a new paradigm is inevitable thanks to technological advances that unravel old problems. USVs promise a future in which it will be much easier to explore the oceans efficiently and at an affordable cost, reducing the gap between the more and less developed countries, and performing an infinite number of tasks without human presence. Technological innovation paves the way, and so we create new paths to explore the sea.

[1]Z. Liu, Y. Zhang, X. Yu, and C. Yuan, "Unmanned surface vehicles: An overview of developments and challenges,” Annu. Rev. Control, vol. 41, pp. 71–93, 2016.
[2]United Nations General Assembly, "Resolution 72/73 on Oceans and the Law of the Sea,” vol. 17045, no. July, pp. 1–15, 2017.

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