Where ma­chines plumb new depths

Sci­en­tists from the Scot­tish As­so­ci­a­tion for Marine Sci­ence are ac­cess­ing oceans of data

The Oban Times - - News - SANDY NEIL sneil@oban­times.co.uk

WA­TER cov­ers 71 per cent of the Earth’s sur­face, yet only six per cent of the seabed has been mapped.

But a team at SAMS Scot­tish Marine Ro­bot­ics Fa­cil­ity is pi­lot­ing au­ton­o­mous un­der­wa­ter ve­hi­cles, or AUVs, to un­der­stand what is go­ing on un­der the waves, where it is ex­tremely ex­pen­sive, and dan­ger­ous, to send sci­en­tists in per­son.

The Scot­tish As­so­ci­a­tion for Marine Sci­ence at Dun­staffnage runs, among its fleet, a 2.5m yel­low sub­ma­rine named Freya, af­ter the Norse god of beauty, love and des­tiny, which can dive up to 500m to emit a sonic ‘ping’, and de­tects its re­flec­tion, to vi­su­alise the un­der­wa­ter land­scape, or find and pic­ture lost ship­wrecks.

Last year Freya scanned and pho­tographed the wreck of the SS Breda, a Dutch steamship car­ry­ing ce­ment, cig­a­rettes, cop­per in­gots, san­dals, crock­ery and ban­knote pa­per, which was sunk by Nazi bombers in Ard­muck­ish Bay near Ben­der­loch dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

A sec­ond, smaller, pro­pel­ler- driven ro­bot, called Re­bus, can travel up for up to 10 hours over 70km, and down to depths of 600m, to mea­sure tur­bu­lence, tem­per­a­ture, salin­ity, wa­ter ve­loc­ity and chloro­phyll flu­o­res­cence.

Above the sea, SAMS de­ploys re­motely pi­loted air­craft, or drones, from Oban air­port to track gi­ant fea­tures such as jel­ly­fish blooms, which are at­tracted to warm wa­ter and can clog up the in­takes of nu­clear power sta­tions.

SAMS also op­er­ates the North At­lantic Glider Base, de­ploy­ing seven ‘un­der­wa­ter glid­ers’ – named af­ter the team’s favourite whiskies – off the Isle of Tiree for seven-month mis­sions up to 1,000m be­low the sur­face, mak­ing con­tin­u­ous mea­sure­ments of ocean cur­rents, tem­per­a­ture and pol­lu­tion.

Anuschka Miller, di­rec­tor of SAMS’ Ocean Ex­plorer Cen­tre, ex­plained: ‘If you don’t have in­for­ma­tion, you have no idea where things end up, whether it’s lost air­planes or oil spills. In or­der to pre­dict this, you’ve got to un­der­stand what’s go­ing on con­stantly.’

The glid­ers are pi­loted by iPhone, by em­ploy­ees such as for­mer SAMS stu­dent Karen Wil­son, and ev­ery six hours the ma­chines trans­mit data back to Dun­staffnage via satel­lite.

Any­one can ac­cess the data on the in­ter­net, says Fraser Mac­don­ald, whose job at SAMS is to pull all this sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion to­gether into a us­able prod­uct.

‘I work in knowl­edge ex­change, ask­ing how our sci­ence can be used,’ he told ‘If it has ben­e­fits to other peo­ple, it can have a higher im­pact.’

One ex­am­ple he cites is track­ing ocean fronts be­tween hot and cold wa­ter, which con- cen­trate fish, seabird and sea mam­mal ac­tiv­ity, and so could help marine tourism busi­ness bet­ter pre­dict where to see wildlife.

Fraser Mac­don­ald and Karen Wil­son test their equip­ment at their Dun­staffnage base and, be­low, some of the sea- glid­ers they op­er­ate.

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