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Latest news on technology and innovation used in, or inspired by, the marine environment.
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Starfish-killing robot close to trials on Great Barrier Reef

Starfish-killing robot close to trials on Great Barrier Reef | Marine Technology |

An autonomous starfish-killing robot is close to being ready for trials on the Great Barrier Reef, researchers say. Crown-of-thorns starfish have have been described as a significant threat to coral.


The Cotsbot robot, which has a vision system, is designed to seek out starfish and give them a lethal injection. After it eradicates the bulk of starfish in a given area, human divers can move in and mop up the survivors.


Field trials of the robot have begun in Moreton Bay in Brisbane to refine its navigation system, Queensland University of Technology researcher Matthew Dunbabin told the BBC.


There are no crown-of-thorns starfish in Moreton Bay but once the navigation has been refined, the robot will be unleashed on the reef.

"Later this month we begin deploying the robot in the Great Barrier Reef to evaluate our state-of-the-art vision-based crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) detection system," he said.

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Underwater robots aim to mimic nature

Underwater robots aim to mimic nature | Marine Technology |

The CoCoRo project is a collaboration between several European universities and aims to create an autonomous swarm of interacting autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).


The AUVs are programmed to mimic the collective traits of various animals and fish and it is hoped that the robots will work together much like the organisms do in real life.


BBC Click spoke to Thomas Schmickl of the Artificial Life Laboratory in Graz, Austria, about the project.

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A Southern Indian Ocean database of hydrographic profiles obtained with instrumented elephant seals - Nature

A Southern Indian Ocean database of hydrographic profiles obtained with instrumented elephant seals - Nature | Marine Technology |



The instrumentation of southern elephant seals with satellite-linked CTD tags has offered unique temporal and spatial coverage of the Southern Indian Ocean since 2004. This includes extensive data from the Antarctic continental slope and shelf regions during the winter months, which is outside the conventional areas of Argo autonomous floats and ship-based studies. This landmark dataset of around 75,000 temperature and salinity profiles from 20–140 °E, concentrated on the sector between the Kerguelen Islands and Prydz Bay, continues to grow through the coordinated efforts of French and Australian marine research teams. The seal data are quality controlled and calibrated using delayed-mode techniques involving comparisons with other existing profiles as well as cross-comparisons similar to established protocols within the Argo community, with a resulting accuracy of ±0.03 °C in temperature and ±0.05 in salinity or better. The data offer invaluable new insights into the water masses, oceanographic processes and provides a vital tool for oceanographers seeking to advance our understanding of this key component of the global ocean climate.

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Acoustic Zoom: The Future of Offshore Exploration

Acoustic Zoom: The Future of Offshore Exploration | Marine Technology |

 A new approach for seismic surveying developed by researchers at the University of Bath, offers a resolution and efficiency beyond the reach of existing seismic methods, reducing the need of unnecessary drilling and the associated impact to the marine environment.

According to the World Ocean Review, the total global energy consumption has risen by about 70% over the past three decades. In addition, the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris estimates that consumption will grow by a further 50% by 2030. While worldwide energy consumption appears to be on the rise, insipid economic growth combined with increased production activities in various countries has led to a drop in oil prices from $110 to less than $50 a barrel.

The UKs industry body, Oil & Gas UK, recently reported the worst annual performance for four decades. In 2014, the UK oil and gas sector invested $7.8 billion more than the total annual earnings. Due to surging costs, exploration in the offshore fields is also on a continuing downward trend.

Improvements in both cost and efficiency up to 40% per barrel may be required for the UK to maintain a sustainable future in the oil and gas sector. In an industry traditionally resistant to change, new approaches will need to be established in order to affordably meet the rising demands of the global energy market.

“The key is to be smart. We need to gather a more comprehensive, detailed knowledge of the environment and the geology before attempting to drill,” said Prof. Jacques Yves Guigné, inventor and developer of Acoustic Zoom. “For instance, brute strength drilling and hope for the best is not an option anymore. Higher definition and more reliable imaging is needed to delineate in advance and effectively assess potential in a deep water or polar site, especially in complex conditions.”

Given today’s prices and concerns for the environment, balancing industry overheads and marine impacts are paramount to both success and profitability. The changing market is set to drive the need for advanced remote sensing solutions which not only offer higher resolution and improved performance, but reduce the cost to both the industry and the ocean.

Seismic survey techniques are used to produce an image of the rock formations beneath the seabed and identify potential oil and gas deposits in sedimentary basins. Exploration and appraisal drilling can then determine the type and volume of any accumulations present. 

Seismic surveys follow a similar general principle of echolocation or sonar. A ship-towed array of multiple airguns sends pulses of sound by a rapid release of compressed air through the water column, towards the seafloor. The sound waves will either refract (bend) or reflect off the seabed and the returning sound is detected by a receiver. The presence of possible deposits in rock formations can be revealed by analyzing the time the waves take to return.


Properties of the substrate can be estimated by observing patterns in the returned sound. The problem is that the resolution of such imaging is poor and the sound used to create it can be disruptive to the marine community.

“The issue is that the industry as a whole is very conservative in adopting innovations until such new approaches have had a long history of proven use. This means changes to current geophysical practices have evolved slowly, often missing out on what could be a more effective seismic survey, better data and enhanced processing of features from such data,” said Guigné. 

This conservative approach is now being challenged as the industry considers venturing into new targeted offshore fields previously thought too expensive and difficult to exploit. This includes areas such as the Arctic, where exciting geological formations are more subtle and complex, but hold great potential for revealing deposits.

These deposits can be missed or masked by the diffractive nature of the formations that surrounds the potentially rich fields. The necessity to capitalize on these untapped regions encourages acknowledgement that more rapid adoption of innovative imaging methods is necessary.

Acoustic Zoom

Developed by Prof. Jacques Guigné and Prof. Nicolas Pace at the University of Bath, Acoustic Zoom is a novel seismic exploration technique adapted from sonar applications. The principle differs from that of conventional seismic survey which analyzes the reflecting sound energy returned from the seafloor. Instead, Acoustic Zoom uses a 16-spoke array set on the ocean floor to measure how the energy is scattered.

The array transmissions transfer energy as small calculated bursts released slowly over time.  As the system is stationary, energy is directed in a localized manner at the seabed and not the water column, therefore marine mammals and their habitats are typically not disturbed. 

The introduction of Acoustic Zoom addresses the need for producing high resolution images of the geology by fully exploiting the use of acoustics in a manner similar to a radio telescope. A principle first used to search galaxies in the mid 1950’s and still used today. 

“Acoustic Zoom is an ‘earth telescope,’ a stationary lens from which propagating sounds can be manipulated and made to be directed to “zoom” into a field with unprecedented imaging qualities, capturing the way the sound energy gets redistributed - attenuated, reflected and scattered - all three forming the final but detailed image of the geology,” said Guigné. “It also allows a controlled low dose acoustic footprint, gentler on the surrounding environment, limiting the disturbances to fragile marine life. If anything, sea life of all forms has been seen to swim around the system out of curiosity, not out of alarm.”

The higher resolution found using this method offers the industry a way of reducing the need for unnecessary drilling in the future. Acoustic Zoom hails the beginning for innovative technologies in this industry, reducing both the associated operational costs as well as the environmental impacts of explorative activities. 
Future of Offshore Exploration

Today’s regard for safety of personnel and environmental awareness is the central focus of industries’ designs. As organizations are reshaped in relation to the drop in oil prices, large ambitious offshore developments have had to be temporarily halted or reappraised. This has led to critical reviews on practices and expenditures. 

The complexity of today’s exploration projects continues to rise, and the need for aggressive innovation in the seabed seismic segment has never been higher. Technologies which are both safe to operate and cost-effective, will become part of the resurgence in activities. 

“There is no question that the oil and gas industry will persist, grow and remain very profitable. It is an industry that when pushed to the edge, responds through better cost effective management practices and adoption of more advanced technologies. Acoustic Zoom is part of this changing tableau and will over time be a recognized evolutionary force for changes to the way we execute exploratory surveying.” 

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New automated method for classifying the deep sea floor

New automated method for classifying the deep sea floor | Marine Technology |

Researchers at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) have developed a new, automated method for classifying hundreds of kilometres of the deep sea floor, in a way that is more cost efficient, quicker and more objective than previously possible.


Currently there is very little information about the geographic distribution of life on the sea floor. This is largely because of the practical difficulty in accessing creatures which live at such a great depth in the ocean.


However, this research soon to be published in the journal Marine Geology, reveals a new method of estimating this distribution using a combination of: submarine mapping technology, statistics and a ‘landscape’ ecology technique called ‘Niche Theory’, which is generally used on land.  


The Niche Theory states that biodiversity is driven by spatial variability in environmental conditions, i.e. the greater the range of habitats, the greater the biodiversity. The lead author of this study, Khaira Ismail from the University of Southampton, has used this concept to create broad-scale, full coverage maps of the sea floor. The objective of these maps is to estimate the location of biodiversity hotspots, by identifying areas where the deep-sea landscapes are relatively more varied.  


Dr Veerle Huvenne, from the NOC, said “by informing us of where to look and where to plan more detailed surveys, this new method will help to make our deep-sea research more targeted and efficient, by advancing our understanding of life in the deep ocean, which at the moment is still very limited.” These maps cover areas approximately 200km across, and have pixel sizes around 25m.


They are created using information on the topography and sediment type of the sea floor, collected from a multi-beam echo sounder and a side scan sonar, respectively.  The resulting map is then analysed in order to break down the sea floor into a series of zones, using statistical analysis to identify distinct ‘geomorphological terrains’ in an objective and repeatable way.  


Khaira said “using statistical methods to identify these ‘terrain zones’ allows us to be more objective than if we were picking them out by hand. This objectivity means that the results are consistent and repeatable, which allows different areas of the sea floor to be compared more easily.” 


This research forms part of the €1.4M European Research Council funded CODEMAP project, and was applied in the Lisbon-Setúbal and Cascais Canyons, off the Portuguese coast. These submarine canyons were classified into six marine ‘seascapes’, based on their geomorphological features. 


Future work will use submarine robot cameras to take photos and videos of life in the deep-sea areas that have been subjected to this mapping technique. This will allow researchers to start to identify new deep sea habitats. 

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BioSonics and Ping DSP Sonar Technologies Combine for Seagrass Surveys

BioSonics and Ping DSP Sonar Technologies Combine for Seagrass Surveys | Marine Technology |

The Ping DSP 3DSS-DX-450 provides wide-swath bathymetry data with full-water-column 3-dimensional backscatter imagery, while the BioSonics MX echosounder uses a focused, relatively narrow beam (90) capable of penetrating the vegetation canopy and accurately locating the bottom beneath the plants. When deployed simultaneously, the hybrid 3D sidescan/single beam system offers a unique combination of capabilities ideal for mapping and quantifying submerged aquatic vegetation.


The Ping 3DSS provides qualitative information across large areas whereas the BioSonics single beam sonar provides quantitative subsampling across areas where plants are known to exist. With the Ping 3DSS, seagrass beds could be clearly visualised at distances over 50 metres on either side of the survey vessel. The edges of the grass patches could be located quickly and the researchers were able to navigate directly through the plant beds where the MX system was used to collect accurate height and density measurements of the vegetation.


The MX echosounder is a purpose-built aquatic habitat assessment system developed by BioSonics in 2012. BioSonics echosounder data is processed with specialized software called Visual Habitat to obtain plant height and density measurements as well as substrate classification. BioSonics developers are now looking at potential ways to adapt Visual Habitat software for Ping DSP sidescan data.

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Nereid under-ice vehicle is a powerful new tool for polar science

Nereid under-ice vehicle is a powerful new tool for polar science | Marine Technology |

Scientists studying the harsh and rapidly changing Arctic environment now have a valuable new tool to advance their work—an innovative robot, designed and built at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) that is changing the way scientists can interact with and observe the polar environment.


Over the past 30 years, the Arctic has warmed more than any other region on Earth. As sea ice continues to thin and melt, understanding the rapid changes going on in this sensitive part of the world and its ecosystems becomes even more crucial.


The new vehicle, called Nereid Under Ice (NUI), is remotely operated by pilots aboard a surface ship via a lightweight, micro-thin, fiber-optic tether, which relays in real time environmental data, including high definition imagery of what the vehicle "sees" as it explores, maps, and gathers data beneath undisturbed sea-ice away from the disruptive impact of an ice-breaking research ship.  This real-time view allows scientists to direct the vehicle's path and collect data of interest based on their visual feedback.


The approximately $3 million vehicle, which was developed with major funding from the National Science Foundation and WHOI, was tested in July 2014 on a scientific expedition aboard the Alfred Wegener Institute's ice-breaker Polarstern, which has the ability to access thick ice.


"We already know the Arctic is changing on an unprecedented scale, and now we have a proven vehicle that provides a completely new way of looking at that system," said Chris German, one of the project's principal investigators at WHOI and the lead scientist for the NUI dives in the Arctic.


A key piece of enabling technology is the lightweight, thin fiber-optic tether—similar in diameter to a human hair. "The fiber-optic tether permits NUI to travel farther from the ship than a conventional tether would allow," said Andy Bowen, Director of the National Deep Submergence Facility at WHOI and the lead principal investigator for the project to design and build the vehicle.  "The tether enables the vehicle to reach heavier ice cover away from the ship, or to move closer to the calving front of a glacier while still remaining under direct human control."


The Nereid Under Ice vehicle is launched from the Alfred Wegener Institute's ice-breaker Polarstern during an expedition last summer. Credit: Chris German, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


If the tether breaks or becomes entangled, NUI is designed to operate as a free-swimming, autonomous vehicle.  As part of its 'come home' control system, the vehicle routinely reports its status to the ship via underwater acoustic telemetry.


"Its human operators can then remotely pilot NUI back to the ship by sending it a series of vehicle motion commands to enable the vehicle to safely return to the ship," said Louis Whitcomb, Professor of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University who is both a principal investigator on the vehicle design-and-build project and sailed to the Arctic with NUI this summer.


Without an ice-capable robot, past Arctic studies have primarily relied on samples gathered from lowering instruments off the side of an icebreaker research ship. "Icebreakers are extremely powerful ships, which they need to be in order to make their way through the ice. But they also behave like floating mixmasters, which is an issue if you're trying to study biological activity immediately under the ice," said Sam Laney, a biologist at WHOI and a member of this summer's Arctic science team. "With this vehicle, we are able to get far enough away from the ship to be in undisturbed areas, so that we can really survey biological phenomena under the ice like never before."


During its trials off the Polarstern this summer, the vehicle made four dives, to a maximum depth of 45 meters. More importantly, the distance of the dives ranged up to 800 meters away from the ship and NUI completed up to 3.7 kilometers of track-line surveys under moving sea ice.  The dives provided scientists with an abundance of optical, physical, chemical, biological and visual data, which will be the focus of continued study, particularly looking at the extent to which photosynthesis can occur in an ice-covered ocean and how that varies as melt-ponds form and the ice thins.


One of the surprises the team noted about the dives was the unexpectedly high amount of biological productivity found under the ice.  They observed large concentrations of algae (single-celled organisms), copepods (tiny, shrimplike crustaceans), ctenophores (comb jellyfish), and larvaceans (transparent, gelatinous animals).


"One of the big needs for better understanding the fate of polar life in a warming Arctic is to be able to look for it under the melting ice," said Antje Boetius from the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research and Chief Scientist for this summer's Polarstern expedition. "There are no other adequate methods available to science at this time: satellites cannot see through ice, and research vessels stir up the under-ice environment.  The robot NUI is a real innovation in this regard. It allows us to extend our senses into this fascinating extreme habitat: the cryosphere.  It provides impressions and data from an area that could be completely different in a few decades from now."


The tethering system for Nereid Under Icewas originally developed during the design of the unmanned deep-sea robot Nereus, which made a historic dive in 2009 tothePacific Ocean's Mariana Trench—the deepest part of the ocean.  Nereus, which was also designed and built by a team of engineers at the Deep Submergence Facility at WHOI and counted among its successes helping to explore the world's deepest vent-sites on the Mid Cayman Rise (2009-2013), was lost in May 2014 while working as part of a mission to explore the ocean's hadal region from 6,000 to nearly 11,000 meters deep. 


Major funding for this summer's expedition aboard the Polarstern was provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI). The expedition was also part of the Helmholtz Alliance program called the Robotic Exploration of Extreme Environments (ROBEX).

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Study to use Google data search analytics to understand marine networks

Study to use Google data search analytics to understand marine networks | Marine Technology |

Scientists at Heriot-Watt University will use the kind of computing algorithms more commonly associated with Google search engines to uncover and record the complex relationships which exist across Scotland's Marine Protected Areas.

'Graph theory' as it is known, underpins many computerised applications. It is used, for example, in internet and telephone network design, optimising emergency service response times, Facebook degrees of separation and Google ranking techniques.


A new study by the University will use computer models to map ocean currents and larvae movement around Scotland's coast after which the graph theory algorithm-based approach will be used to analyse the data. It is hoped it will reveal how individual protected areas connect and how important that connectivity is to marine species such as protected cold-water corals and other reef-forming species such as flame shells, horse mussels and serpulid worms.


Ecosystems cannot exist in isolation. Many marine creatures, as adults, live fixed to the sea bed, but these sedentary populations are linked through the production of larvae which drift on the ocean currents, like seeds on the wind, before settling, allowing colonisation of new areas and recovery of damaged populations.

Dr Alan Fox who has recently joined the School of Life Sciences on a Daphne Jackson Fellowship, will work with Professor Murray Roberts and Professor David Corne, to study this connectivity.


"Application of graph theory to marine conservation networks will help identify important sites and pathways, find gaps and optimise the network for marine protection," said Dr Fox. "Longer term, combined with monitoring, network characteristics will help determine the essential properties of successful marine protection and feed in to protected area network design worldwide."


Professor David Corne, Director of Enterprise, Impact and Innovation in Heriot-Watt University's School of Mathematical & Computer Sciences said, "Viewing the MPA network through a 'complexity science' lens enables us to discover significant problems or opportunities that would otherwise be missed; Alan's work could lead to an entirely new approach to identify MPAs, providing stakeholders with more confidence in their ability to ensure the protection of vulnerable species."


In July the Scottish Government designated 30 new MPAs in Scotland's seas to help protect marine species and habitats, from sponges on the deep seabed to dolphins and basking sharks. These MPAs join existing protected areas around the coast forming a developing network where damaging activities will be managed to allow marine life to thrive. To obtain maximum benefit scientists need to know how well the protected areas will function as a complete network.


Professor Murray Roberts, co-ordinator of Heriot-Watt University's new Lyell Centre for Earth and Marine Science and Technology said, "Marine ecosystems have never been under as much stress as they are now. We are seeing the effects of warmer temperatures and ocean acidification changing the oceans at unbelievably rapid rates. There's real concern that additional pressures from things like over-fishing and pollution may push marine ecosystems too far – and that's why properly integrated networks of marine protected areas are more important now than ever before. "It's these protected places that hold the best hope for ecosystems to recover and help provide the larvae and juveniles that will spread to other areas."

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UK to acquire UAVs for Antarctic research

UK to acquire UAVs for Antarctic research | Marine Technology |

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is to acquire a fixed-wing unmanned air vehicle to complement its fleet of manned aircraft in carrying out scientific research.


Requirements are being formally defined, but the BAS says it needs an off-the-shelf vehicle with a range of some 540nm (1,000km) and a payload capacity of about 8kg (17.6lb).


Once the requirements are established, they will be published in the Official Journal of the European Union in accordance with laws surrounding public-sector organisations. A tender is expected early in 2015.


“We need to create realistic requirements,” Carl Robinson, head of airborne survey technology at the BAS, told Flightglobal at the Commercial UAV Show in London. “Only then will we get the most response back from the manufacturers … and we’ll have the most choice of platforms.”

Payloads will include standard visual sensors as well as more specialised equipment such as atmospheric monitoring sensors, so weight will vary. “As it is with our current aircraft, it is a trade-off with fuel and equipment,” Robinson adds.


When the platform is selected, a small number of vehicles will be ordered, but another order is expected if the vehicle proves itself useful to the mission.


The current BAS fleet of manned aircraft consists of four de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otters and one de Havilland Canada Dash 7.

Because of the Antarctic climate, the manned aircraft cannot be used to carry out research during winter, which falls roughly between March and October. The BAS envisages the UAV operating throughout that period.


“There is actually a lot of interesting research that can be carried out during these months,” Robinson says. “It [the UAV] would allow us to do continuous research throughout the year – that’s one of the bullet points in why a UAV would be important to BAS.”


Another benefit comes from the logistics burden associated with current operations. When teams are deployed to test sites away from BAS bases, a large amount of spare equipment must be transported alongside them, and any emergency spares are delivered with a Twin Otter.


The BAS plans to use a UAV to carry small spares to the sites as they are needed instead of routinely shipping cases of supplies.

Airspace and environmental regulations surrounding the use of UAVs have been considered throughout the process, and the BAS established a regulations committee for the tender earlier this year. “We’re aware that UAVs aren’t the size of manned aircraft and that they have different capabilities and flight levels,” Robinson says. “There are already very good environmental guidelines in place, but they don’t take into account how UAVs operate.”


A new polar ship with a helipad is being purchased, and UAVs can be operated from it. The BAS expects to acquire a rotary-wing UAV that would have a more permanent place on the new ship. Such a vehicle could fly ahead of the ship, surveying ice formations and providing more accurate data than can be obtained with satellite imagery, Robinson says.

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Big robot fleet takes to UK waters

Big robot fleet takes to UK waters | Marine Technology |

A fleet of marine robots is being launched in the largest deployment of its kind in British waters. Unmanned boats and submarines will travel 500km (300 miles) across an area off the southwestern tip of the UK.

The aim is to test new technologies and to map marine life in a key fishing ground.


In total, seven autonomous machines are being released in a trial heralded as a new era of robotic research at sea. Two of the craft are innovative British devices that are designed to operate for months using renewable sources of power including wind and wave energy.

The project, led by the National Oceanography Centre, involves more than a dozen research centres and specialist companies.


Chief scientist Dr Russell Wynn told BBC News: "This is the first time we've deployed this range of vehicles carrying all these instruments.

"And it's exciting that it's the first time we can measure everything in the water column and all the life in the ocean simultaneously.

"The ability to measure the temperature or the weather at the ocean surface, or dolphins and seabirds with the cameras on the vehicles - no-one's ever been able to do that at the same time hundreds of miles from the shore."


Data about the oceans is usually gathered by a combination of satellites, buoys and research ships, but all three have limitations in their coverage, and large crewed vessels are particularly expensive. The motivation for exploring the use of massed robotic vehicles is to assess whether they can provide near-constant coverage at far lower cost - the equivalent of CCTV offering round-the-clock surveillance.

The target for the deployment is an area of ocean marking the boundary between Atlantic waters and tidal waters from the English Channel - what's known as an ocean front. Fronts like this usually create upwelling that brings nutrients from the seabed towards the surface and encourages plankton to thrive. That in turn attracts fish, whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Most of the craft are being deployed from the Isles of Scilly for a three-week traverse of the ocean. The exact route of the journey is being withheld to avoid the risk of anyone interfering with the experiment.

Instruments will record key parameters of the ocean, ranging from the concentrations of plankton to the clicks and whistles of dolphins and porpoises. Cameras on the surface vehicles will also attempt to capture images of seabirds and other marine life.


According to Dr Wynn, the UK's 700,000 sq km of waters are highly productive as fishing grounds but the processes at work in them remain unclear. "Actually understanding how that sea works and how the animals are distributed is a real challenge if you've only got a small number of ships and a few buoys dotted around.

"Having a fleet of vehicles that can go out, without humans on board, controlled by satellite, really gives us a chance to transform our ability to monitor the ocean. "At the moment a lot of decisions about how we manage the oceans are based on very few data - relatively simple things like where do dolphins and seabirds go to feed? We actually have very little information on that."

Until now, companies developing robotic vehicles for use at sea have focused on military and commercial customers such as the US Navy and oil and gas companies, and American firms have dominated the market for automated submarines. The British government's hope is that the UK may become a leader in unmanned surface machines - robotic boats - which can act as drones gathering information to help weather forecasters or do conservation work.

Ministers have identified robotics as one of the "eight great technologies" that can help rebalance the country's economy and drive growth.

Funding has allowed the National Oceanography Centre to support two UK companies, MOST and ASV, in developing their AutoNaut and C-Enduro robotic boats that are on trial now.


The first phase of the deployment is planned to end in three weeks' time, when the vehicles will be retrieved from the ocean and the results analysed. Partners in the project include the universities of St Andrews and Exeter, Cefas, the Marine Biological Association, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the British Oceanographic Data Centre, British Antarctic Survey, UK Met Office, Royal Navy and DSTL. Corporate partners include MOST, ASV, J&S, RS Aqua and Liquid Robotics.

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Modelling tool gives big picture to aquaculture

A complex computer model developed in South Australia is offering commercial operators the chance to more efficiently and sustainably run their businesses. The innovative tool allows scientists and aquaculture managers to test the “big picture” environmental impact of various fish farming scenarios over large tracks of water as well as the localised impacts of individual farm leases.


Developed over four years by the South Australian Research & Development Institute (SARDI) to monitor aquaculture in the Spencer Gulf, the model simulates the level of nutrients in a given area of the gulf and how the ocean circulation in that area might diffuse or disperse them. Nutrient levels impact directly and indirectly on the health of phytoplankton – the tiny plants at the base of the marine food web. When applied to a spatial planning tool through a graphical user interface, the model allows managers and producers to rapidly assess the suitability of new and existing aquaculture finfish sites at the scale of the gulf, region or lease.


The tool is known as CarCap1.0, reflecting the importance of “carrying capacity” – the concentration of nutrients in the ocean – in determining whether aquaculture developments can proceed in Australia. While primarily designed to help authorities manage present and future aquaculture development in Spencer Gulf (currently worth around $240 million a year at the farm gate), the system is attracting interest from industry because it can help producers improve feeding regimes and the seasonal placement of fish within their leases.


“We are currently working with one large commercial client, helping it make the best decisions based on the modeling of various options,” said the project leader and head of SARDI’s Oceanography Group, Associate Professor John Middleton. “It is a very cost-effective solution for them because we have done the base work and can easily feed in scenarios specific to the company.”


The project attracted great interest when Assoc Prof Middleton presented to the World Aquaculture Conference in Adelaide. “It was a big study, it was different to what has been done elsewhere and it can form the basis for future studies elsewhere both nationally and internationally,” he said. “Although Spencer Gulf specific data collected in this project cannot be transferred to other areas, the methods and approach to better define environmental carrying capacity of a given body of water with various sources of nutrient inputs are applicable to other geographical areas, as well as to aquaculture, fisheries and marine-based commercial activities.”


The project data was collected through the Southern Australian Node of the Integrated Marine Observing System (SAIMOS), a $10 million program established five years ago by SARDI, South Australia’s Flinders University and the Australian Government to monitor the coastal boundary currents and planktonic ecosystems.


The data covers a range of factors from ocean circulation and seasonal variations in climate and rainfall, to temperature, salinity, oxygen, and phytoplankton and zooplankton levels. “This information gives far more interconnected detail and is more useful than what we’ve had in the past,” Assoc Prof Middleton said.


Significantly, the system can differentiate nutrients created through aquaculture from those occurring naturally or from other sources such as wastewater disposal. The good news for South Australia is the natural input of nutrients into the gulf is about 18 times greater than human-related nutrient inputs, suggesting that current aquaculture is sustainable and there is scope for expansion.


The system also has potential beyond aquaculture. South Australia’s Environment Protection Agency has already expressed interest in its ability to model salinity levels in water, for example. The Spencer Gulf Ecosystem and Development Initiative is one of the first of its kind in the world, aiming to provide all stakeholders with access to independent and credible information about the Spencer Gulf and opportunities to develop it without compromising its environment.

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Sea's heat to warm historic house

Sea's heat to warm historic house | Marine Technology |

One of the finest old mansions in Wales is making history with a new technology that sucks heat from sea water. Plas Newydd, with spectacular views of Snowdon from Anglesey, will in future have its collection of past military uniforms warmed by a heat pump.

It's the biggest UK scheme of its kind and shows a way in which buildings can be heated without imported gas or oil. It relies on a heat exchanger, which uses a system akin to refrigeration to amplify warmth from pipes in the sea. The 300kW marine source heat pump cost the National Trust £600,000 and is expected to save around £40,000 a year in operating costs.

The proceeds will be returned to the conservation of the 18th century mansion, which boasts relics from the Battle of Waterloo and a spectacular mural by Rex Whistler. Heat pumps are likely to become more common as the UK attempts to decarbonise its heating systems, which (unlike electricity) are almost totally dependent on fossil fuels.

The pumps use a compressor and a heat exchanger to suck heat from the air, the ground, or - in this case - water.


The system uses electricity to work the exchanger and the pump, and is only efficient if the final heat is usable at a relatively low temperature.

At Plas Newydd it will reach just 55C, but this is perfect for keeping the building at a steady warmth for conservation. Adam Ellis-Jones, from the National Trust, said: "With the Irish Sea right on the doorstep, a marine source heat pump is the best option for us.


"Being a pioneer is never easy. There are very few marine source heat pumps and none of this size in the UK, so it has been a challenging project - but a very exciting one." Plas Newydd was previously the National Trust's most polluting property, warmed entirely by an oil-fired boiler.

The use of heat pumps is growing as the government looks to subsidise low-carbon heat sources, but they are by no means universally suitable.

Currently they only pay back under certain circumstances - for instance if a property like Plas Newydd is not connected to the gas grid and relies on expensive oil heating; or if it has been designed to be high-efficiency so it only needs low-grade heat; or if it generates its own electricity through renewables so the power to run the heat exchanger is virtually free.


Air source heat pumps, which suck in air from outside, are the cheapest type to install, but they are the least efficient on the coldest days. Then it is better to have a ground or water source heat pump, with pipes buried underground or underwater, because water and ground will be warmer than air. Homes with under-floor heating are better suited to heat pumps because they require large amounts of warm water at a relatively low heat.


Tobi Kellner co-wrote the Zero Carbon Britain report for the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth in mid Wales. He told BBC News that if the UK sticks to its aim to cut CO2 emissions 80% by 2050, heat pumps will be essential. "Today heat pumps are not the 'green' heat source of choice for most households because of the polluting nature of our power stations," he said.


"In a future where most electricity is produced from renewables this picture would change fundamentally as heat pumps deliver most of the energy required for heating homes. "Heat pumps could also play an important role in balancing supply and demand in future energy systems. Electricity is difficult to store, but heat can be stored easily in the form of hot water."


He calculates that running heat pumps when wind power output is high and demand low - on, say, a windy night - then storing heat in hot water cylinders or storage caverns could help solve the problems of variable output from renewables. The National Trust is pressing ahead with low-carbon developments across its huge estate. Its managers are uncomfortably aware that these improvements are heavily subsidised by a levy on the bills of all energy users, including the poorest.


If its remaining five renewables pilots succeed, the Trust will invest in 43 further renewables schemes. A National Heat Map will be published at the end of June, showing the rivers in England that have the highest potential for water source heat pumps.

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New ways of cultivating valuable marine microorganisms

A four-year EU-funded project has identified new ways of cultivating marine microorganisms and screening them for potentially useful marine bio-compounds. This could have implications for the healthcare, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries, which are just a few of the sectors that are eager to take advantage of value-added molecules derived from the sea.

Furthermore, a 'survival box' containing everything needed for collecting cyanobacteria - a marine organism that obtains energy through photosynthesis - has been developed. 'I hope to use this during expeditions to the Red Sea in May and to the tropical Atlantic Ocean on the research vessel Pelagia in September,' said MaCuMBA project coordinator Professor Lucas Stal.


While marine microorganisms - such as bacteria, fungi, sponges and algae - are an untapped resource of biotechnological potential, farming these molecules in a sustainable and efficient manner has proved to be costly and difficult. As a result, the vast majority of marine microorganisms have not been cultivated, meaning that potentially valuable marine bio-compounds remain underexploited.

The MaCuMBA (Marine Microorganisms: Cultivation Methods for Improving their Biotechnological Applications) project, which runs until July 2016, has sought to address this by identifying new ways of cultivating and increasing the growth efficiency of marine microorganisms in both conventional and extreme habitats.


A number of new approaches have been trialled, including the co-cultivation of interdependent microorganisms, which help each other to thrive, and the mimicking of natural environments. The project has also applied new automated techniques to improve the efficiency of isolating promising microorganisms.


Another interesting feature of this project has been the focus on cell-to-cell communication. Cells use signalling molecules to coordinate their actions, and it is thought that these molecules could play an important role in stimulating growth of the same or even other species.


From the beginning, the project has focused on two main oceanic areas. The first is the photic zone, which is the depth of water in an ocean exposed to sufficient sunlight for photosynthesis to occur. Here, highly diverse microbial communities proliferate. The second zone encompasses deep extreme ecosystems, where it is thought that due to severe environmental conditions, many new molecules and enzymes with unusual properties will be discovered.


Indeed, by the end of the project, the team hopes to have succeeded in isolating numerous novel marine bacteria and improved the cultivation efficiency of useful marine microorganisms. MaCuMBA also aims to achieve a better understanding of exactly how cell-to-cell communication works, as well as how bioactive molecules from already cultured organisms are produced.


All strains of microorganisms collected as part of the MaCuMBA project will be made available online as soon as possible. Algae and cyanobacteria will be stored in the Roscoff Culture Collection (RCC), France, while all other organisms will be kept in the Leibniz-Institut Deutsche Sammlung von Mikroorganismen und Zellkulturen GmbH (German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures (DSMZ)).

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Boxfish shell inspires new materials for body armor and flexible electronics

Boxfish shell inspires new materials for body armor and flexible electronics | Marine Technology |

The boxfish’s unique armor draws its strength from hexagon-shaped scales and the connections between them, engineers at the University of California, San Diego, have found.


They describe their findings and the carapace of the boxfish (Lactoria cornuta) in the July 27 issue of the journal Acta Materialia. Engineers also describe how the structure of the boxfish could serve as inspiration for body armor, robots and even flexible electronics.

“The boxfish is small and yet it survives in the ocean where it is surrounded by bigger, aggressive fish, at a depth of 50 to 100 meters,” said Wen Yang, a UC San Diego alumna now working at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich in Switzerland and the paper’s first author. “After I touched it, I realized why it can survive - it is so strong but at the same time so flexible.”


The boxfish’s hard frame and flexible body make it an ideal animal to study for inspiration for armor materials. The hexagon-shaped scales are called scutes. They are connected by sutures, similar to the connections in a baby’s skull, which grow and fuse together as the baby grows.


Most fish have overlapping scales, said Steven Naleway a materials science and engineering Ph.D. student and co-author on the paper. “That means that there are no weak points, should a bite from a predator land exactly in between scales,” he said. “We are currently investigating what mechanical advantage scutes and sutures might provide. We know that the boxfish has survived for 35 million years with this armor, so the design has proved very successful in nature.”


Each hexagonal scale, or scute, has a raised, star-like structure in the center that distributes stress across the entire surface. Under the scutes, the team found an inner layer that forms a complex structure in which collagen fibers interlock. This structure creates a flexible inner layer in the armor, which is difficult to penetrate due to the interlocking collagen fibers. Together, the outer and inner layers of the boxfish armor provide the fish with protection unique in the natural world.


The team also tested the scutes’ ability to withstand tension by pulling them apart both horizontally and vertically, as well as their ability to withstand penetration. “We were able to demonstrate that even if a predator manages to generate a crack in the outer layer, the collagen fibers will help to prevent the structure from failing,” said Yang. Her current research focuses on the characterization of bio-inspired materials.  


Meanwhile, the connections between the scutes, called sutures, make the armor even stronger. Upon impact, the sutures’ zigzag patterns essentially lock in and keep the scutes from breaking apart. These sutures are different from many of those found elsewhere in nature, Naleway said.


“The most common form of suture structures in nature are those that have a roughly triangular shape and consist of two important components: rigid suture teeth and a compliant interface,” he said. “To the best of our knowledge, there is no compliant phase in the interface of the boxfish’s sutures. In addition, the teeth themselves have a much lower aspect ratio — meaning that they are shorter and wider — than most other examples.”


“Our approach is unique as we use engineering principles to understand the biological design,” said professor Joanna McKittrick, a materials science expert and one of the senior authors on the paper.


Researchers used scanning electron microscopy to characterize the surface structure of the scutes. They also took cross sections and used micro-computer tomography to characterize the dense regions. The results of mechanical testing left the researchers wanting to know why the boxfish would choose a design that excluded overlapping scales.


“These damage-resisting structures have evolved for millions of years in nature and are being studied with support of the U.S. Air Force to hopefully guide us to bioinspired designs that will offer more protection against impact than our conventional ones,” said Marc Meyers, one of the two senior authors on the paper and Distinguished Professor of Materials Science at UC San Diego.

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Ocean head count: Scientists develop new methods to track ocean biodiversity

Ocean head count: Scientists develop new methods to track ocean biodiversity | Marine Technology |

MOSS LANDING, CA--How can you track changes in complex marine ecosystems over time? MBARI scientists are part of a team trying to do just this with a five-year, $7 million grant through the National Ocean Partnership Program. The proposed Marine Biodiversity Observation Network (MBON) will combine species counts and ecological data from existing research programs with newer data gathered using cutting-edge satellites, robots, and genetic analyses.


"Our main task is to figure out how life in the sea is changing," said MBARI Senior Scientist Francisco Chavez, the leader of the MBARI portion of the project. "Right now, we don't have the means to track life in the sea in a sustainable manner."


The ocean supports all sorts of life ranging from bacteria to whales. This biodiversity--or variety of organisms--fluctuates naturally in our oceans. But a large loss in biodiversity, whether natural or human caused, would most likely harm ocean health and fisheries. Presently, shifts in marine biodiversity may be missed because baseline biodiversity counts don't exist. Chavez and his colleagues will design new genomic techniques to measure biodiversity and augment the new data with numbers from existing ocean monitoring programs.


Chavez and his team need to sample across a complex patchwork of ocean ecosystems, but the plan needs to be economical and feasible. The scientists will run their biodiversity pilot program through two national marine sanctuaries: the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuaries were created in part to act as preserves for marine biodiversity. By focusing on these two regions, the team will test whether their methods work well across multiple marine ecosystems including deep-ocean canyons, continental shelves, estuaries, and coral reefs.


The team will combine ecological data with regional maps to classify the sanctuaries' habitats. This will allow them to sample each habitat effectively as variables such as temperature, upwelling, and currents change seasonally.


Even within the smaller sanctuaries, scientists can't tally every organism in the sea, especially the microscopic ones. Chavez and his team hope to use organic material suspended in the water--bits of sluffed-off skin, scales, mucus, microbes, and excrement--to identify the organisms living in the area. This marine dandruff contains genetic material, which the scientists hope to use to track biodiversity.


One of the goals of the MBON project is to use this "environmental DNA" (eDNA) to detect a wide variety of different organisms, from microbes to marine mammals, using a single water sample--something that has never been done before. The MBON team will use autonomous underwater vehicles and gliders to collect water samples over large areas without sending humans out to sea. These pre-programmed submarines will traverse the sanctuaries and return with water samples brimming with eDNA. Back in the lab, MBARI researchers, along with teams from Stanford University and the University of South Florida, will fine-tune existing genomic protocols to identify the DNA from a variety of different groups of organisms.


The researchers also will take advantage of ocean data already being gathered. Currently, commercial fisheries and ocean scientists track populations of a few key species including whales, rockfish, and krill. At the same time, MBARI and other marine institutes amass reams of physical data about ocean conditions including temperature, current, and nutrient measurements. Other organizations, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey, use satellites to record sea-surface conditions.


"Scientists struggle with putting the biological information in an environmental context," said Chavez. "They don't have the luxury of engaging with the physical data. One task for this team is to try to compile that information together in one place."


Once scientists have access to biodiversity and physical data in one spot, they can ask questions about population dynamics. For example, krill populations in Monterey Bay continuously ebb and flow, and these tiny shrimp-like animals have a huge effect on ocean food webs. Many other animals, including many commercially important fishes, feed on krill, and the krill themselves eat vast amounts of plankton. The MBON database could allow scientists to identify the ocean conditions that influence the size of krill populations.


In the long term, Chavez' team hopes to identify a subset of key variables that highly influence regional marine biodiversity. If they can find this key set of variables, researchers will be able to predict changes in biodiversity better than they do now.


Data from the project will be useful for a variety of groups, from fishermen to politicians. Fisheries managers could use the team's findings to preserve fish stocks. Lawmakers, armed with good science about the effects of pollution and global warming on marine biodiversity, can devise better ocean regulations. The program could allow marine-sanctuary staff to gauge whether biodiversity or water quality is being protected within the sanctuaries or if invasive species have entered the area.


With so much at stake, a variety of federal agencies are stepping up to fund marine biodiversity research. NASA, NOAA, and the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management split $17 million between the Monterey/Florida team's MBON mission and two other projects. The other teams will test methods of assessing biodiversity in the Santa Barbara Channel and the Chukchi Sea near Alaska. As one partner in the MBON grant, MBARI is collaborating with Stanford University's Center for Ocean Solutions, the Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center Fisheries Ecology Division, and a wide variety of institutions in Florida.


Ocean ecosystems are changing rapidly due to increases in fishing pressure, ocean acidification, temperatures, a varying climate and other human influences. If successful, the Marine Biodiversity Ocean Network will provide new and revolutionary methods for detecting these changes and protecting marine biodiversity.

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Could electric biorocks save coral reefs?

Could electric biorocks save coral reefs? | Marine Technology |

Just metres off the beach, beneath the clear water, is a giant motorbike, sitting atop a big steel structure in the shape of a speedbump. It is covered in coral, and tropical fish dart under the handlebars and between the spokes of the wheels.

The structure isn’t an art installation, however; their frames tingle with electrical currents, which helps them create a rocky coating – which in turn becomes a nursery for coral reefs that have been damaged by human activity.


These electrically charged shapes are in Gili Trawangan, one of three small islands northwest of Lombok in the Indonesian archipelago. A tourism industry has sprung up here in record time. With it, a small group of expat environmental activists have clubbed together to create the steel structures submerged in the nearby waters, and shown how a new technology may help this developing nation safeguard some of its natural wonders.


The ‘Gilis’, as they’re known, were a destination previously off-the-beaten-track; that’s no longer the case. On Gili T’s main street, tourists sip soy lattes and munch on superfoods in air-conditioned cafes as the Islamic call to prayer sings out as background noise. Swedish and Australian tourists bike around the three-kilometre-long island, past locals in pony-drawn carts and hijabs.


“I was really quite amazed and surprised to see the results of the technology,” says Delphine Robbe, the manager of Gili Eco Trust. Originally from France, Robbe moved to the island as a dive instructor in the early 2000s. She started the biorock project a decade ago, funding it originally through her own salary. There are now 111 of them across the three islands, each costing around £1,500 ($2,270).


A low-voltage direct current is run through the steel. This electricity interacts with the minerals in the seawater and causes solid limestone to grow on the structure. It draws on the principles of electrolysis, where the electric current causes a chemical reaction to occur which wouldn’t have otherwise.


Healing space

Eventually, the limestone solidifies. “It’s the same thing that makes up [marine] skeletons,” says Robbe. And it’s a perfect breeding ground for aquatic life. “It’s speeding up the normal reaction of coral growth. Corals on the biorocks survive more than any other.”

When divers see injured coral, they move it to one of these structures to rehabilitate. The coral heals some 20 times faster, and has up to 50 times more chance of survival. The rehabilitated coral can often be astoundingly brilliant in colour and densely branched. Once healed, it is returned to the open sea.


“Just observing the reef and hoping it will recover is pointless – it doesn’t work,” says Robbe. She says there are coral rubbles lying on the seabed that, with strong storms and waves, are constantly being shifted about, making their regeneration impossible.

The behaviour of locals and tourists don’t help either. The use of heavy nets and even dynamite by fishermen, dragging anchors, and divers and tourists touching or walking on the reef all cause damage. “These are all forbidden in the Indonesian lawbook but there’s no control,” she says.


Protecting effect

The biorocks – shaped like giant steel manta rays, pyramids, planes, dolphins, whale sharks, lizards and turtles – are helping to stave off these adverse effects. And it’s not just coral that improves: the biorocks have helped the fish populations as well, particularly lobsters and juvenile fish who shelter in the structures. “Now we have more biodiversity and the water quality is better,” she says.

They have also helped turn the tide when it comes to severely eroding beaches. Slowing the onslaught of fast waves, biorocks lead sand to be deposited, rather than eroded, at the shoreline. This has seen certain parts of the beach grow some 15 metres in a few years.

And, they’ve proven themselves resistant to damage from natural disasters, such as the Asian Tsunami of 2004, as their open frameworks allow large waves to pass through.


While there is no limit to the size or shape of the structures – they could be hundreds of miles long if funding allowed – there is a limit when it comes to powering them. “You can’t have them way out to sea because you need electricity,” says Robbe. And in a developing country like Indonesia, electricity means oil. It’s a vicious circle environmentally.

The team has experimented with powering biorocks using solar energy from a solar panel on a barge above the structure. The only problem? The panels are often stolen.


Tidal energy

Now they’re looking to harness the energy of the marine currents. “The marine turbine acts like a wind turbine but underwater,” says Robbe. Operating in a cylinder, there are three blades that spin with the current with a generator on the top. As the biorock doesn’t need a constant energy supply, the tidal waves would provide enough power.


The team has been trying to fund the project for the last four years. Not only is the technology very expensive, but importing it attracts huge taxes. As a result, they’re now trying to produce it locally. Their first prototype wasn’t quite right – the fan rotated too slowly – but they’re working with engineers on a new one. If it’s successful, Robbe imagines wind-turbine-powered biorocks could be replicated around the world.


What’s more, she hopes the project could serve to show Indonesia that they could use tidal energy, rather than oil, to produce the country’s electricity. “Tidal power has great potential for future power and electricity generation especially in Indonesia which would be able to use its main wealth, the ocean,” writes Robbe on her blog.


The project has also supported the growth of a burgeoning eco-tourism industry, as budding conservationists book in for two-week courses to learn how to build the biorocks. The simple structures currently doing their coral-conserving work in the warm offshore waters may turn out to have some far-reaching effects.

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Cardiff tidal energy lagoon 'could power every home in Wales'

Cardiff tidal energy lagoon 'could power every home in Wales' | Marine Technology |'s insight:

A “tidal lagoon” capable of powering all the homes in Wales could be built off the Cardiff coast, under Government-backed plans for a series of tidal electricity schemes around the UK. Green energy company Tidal Lagoon Power on Monday began the official planning process for the proposed 14-mile seawall, which would stretch from Cardiff to Newport and cost up to £6bn.

The company is already developing plans for a smaller pilot scheme in Swansea Bay and also wants to build four other large-scale lagoons – at Newport, West Cumbria, Colwyn Bay and Bridgwater Bay. It says the fleet of six lagoons could together generate 8 per cent of the UK’s needs for 120 years. The Government has already thrown its weight behind the plans,naming the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon in the National Infrastructure Plan last year. The £1bn scheme, which involves a six-mile sea wall, is currently awaiting a decision, due by June, on its planning application.

Ed Davey, the energy secretary - who could take the planning decision before the general election - told the BBC he was “very excited by the prospect of tidal power”, describing it as “really useful”. Ministers are preparing to enter into negotiations with Tidal Lagoon Power over subsidies for the Swansea project, which would be paid for through levies on consumer energy bills.

Citizens Advice has warned that the plans are “appalling value for money” and urged the Government not to “squander” bill-payers’ cash on the project.


Electricity from Swansea would be more expensive than that from any other major green energy project in the UK to date, the consumer charity warned. The developer admits the scheme would be “expensive” initially but claims that the cost of electricity from the second, larger scheme in Cardiff would be cheaper, on a par with power from the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear plant. It is seeking subsidies for the first 35 years of the project, to recoup its construction costs and turn a profit, but says that thereafter the energy would be very cheap.

Each lagoon would generate power for about 14 hours a day, as water passes through turbines embedded in the sea walls.

Gates in the lagoon walls would be closed to keep water out as the tide rises, then opened soon after high tide, allowing water to rush in and turn the turbines. Gates would then be shut, keeping the water in until soon after low tide, when they would be opened to let the water out and turn the turbines again. The proposed Cardiff scheme’s annual output would be equivalent to the electricity used by all homes in Wales in a year, the company said.

It began the first formal stages of preparing for a planning application on Monday and says it aims to submit a full application in 2017. If approved, it could start generating power in 2022. Developers say tidal power is reliable, unlike wind energy, and that a series of lagoons around the coast could capitalise on different tidal times to ensure power around the clock.

Tidal Lagoon Power has also caused controversy with plans to quarry rocks for the lagoons in Cornwall, where its sister company wants to reopen the disused Dean Quarry and ship the rocks out via a new jetty and breakwater that would be built in a recently-designated Marine Conservation Zone. Mark Shorrock, Chief Executive of Tidal Lagoon Power: “We have the best tidal resource in Europe and the second best worldwide. We now have a sustainable way to make the most of this natural advantage.”

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Octopus robot makes waves with ultra-fast propulsion

Octopus robot makes waves with ultra-fast propulsion | Marine Technology |

Scientists have developed an octopus–like robot, which can zoom through water with ultra–fast propulsion and acceleration never before seen in man–made underwater vehicles.


Most fast aquatic animals are sleek and slender to help them move easily through the water but cephalopods, such as the octopus, are capable of high-speed escapes by filling their bodies with water and then quickly expelling it to dart away.

Inspired by this, scientists from the University of Southampton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology built a deformable octopus-like robot with a 3D printed skeleton with no moving parts and no energy storage device other than a thin elastic outer hull.

The 30cm long self-propelling robot is inflated with water and then rapidly deflates by shooting the water out through its base to power its outstanding propulsion and acceleration, despite starting from a non-streamlined shape. As the rocket contracts, it can achieve more than 2.6 times the thrust of a rigid rocket doing the same manoeuvre.

It works like blowing up a balloon and then releasing it to fly around the room. However, the 3D printed polycarbonate skeleton inside keeps the balloon tight and the final shape streamlined, while fins on the back keep it going straight.

The robot is capable of accelerating up to ten body lengths in less than a second. In recent laboratory tests, the robot accelerated a one kilogram payload up to 6mph in less than a second. This is comparable to a mini-cooper carrying an additional 350kg of weight (bringing the total weight of the car to 1,000kg) accelerating from a standstill to 60mph in one second – underwater. This performance is unprecedented in man-made underwater vehicles.

Dr Gabriel Weymouth, Lecturer for the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute at the University of Southampton and lead author of the study, says:

“Man-made underwater vehicle are designed to be as streamlined as possible, but with the exception of torpedoes, which use massive amounts of propellent, none of these vehicles achieve speeds of even a single body length per second or accelerations of 0.1g, despite significant mechanical complexity.

“Rigid bodies always lose energy to the surrounding water, but the rapidly shrinking form of the robot actually uses the water to help propel its ultra-fast escape, resulting in 53 per cent energy efficiency, which is better than the upper estimates for fast-starting fish.”

The researchers calculate that making the robot bigger would improve its fast-starting performance, which could have applications in the development of artificial underwater vehicles that can match the speed, manoeuvrability and efficiency of their biological inspirations. The understanding this study provides could also have an impact in other engineering fields where drag is critical, such as airplane wing design, and to the study of different shape-changing biological systems.

The study, which is published in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, was funded with support from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology and from the MIT Sea Grant program.

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Satellite system targets 'dark fish'

Satellite system targets 'dark fish' | Marine Technology |

Technologists have introduced a novel system they hope can help tackle illegal fishing. It meshes satellite and other data to monitor the activities of vessels, automatically triggering alarms when suspicious activity is observed.

The project is a joint venture between the Pew Charitable Trusts and the UK Satellite Applications Catapult. It is thought as many as one in five fish are landed outside of national or international regulations.

The value of this trade could exceed more than $20bn (£13bn; 17bn euros) a year, according to some estimates.


Much of this theft is perpetrated by industrial-scale pirate operations that think the vast expanse of the oceans can hide their behaviour.

The new system, known as Project Eyes on the Seas, will be operated initially from a "watchroom" at the Catapult's Harwell, Oxfordshire, HQ.


The smart monitoring system does not merely track vessels at sea; it analyses their movements. And by looking at additional inputs like sea conditions and probable fish locations, it can make predictions about what vessels are doing. Algorithms built into Project Eyes will provide alerts to the watchroom.

"It can use the tracks that are being transmitted to recognise activity that is related to fishing," explained Pew's Tony Long. "So, for example, we have a proximity alert that tells us when vessels are coming together to perhaps exchange catch; we have a slow-speed alert that indicates when any vessel has come down below five knots, which might indicate it's put fishing gear in the water; and it will also alert us when vessels cross boundaries, like going into a no-take area.

"We've built these algorithms using historical data, and we're now transferring them to the live system." Efficient deployments

This is not the first system of its kind, but Pew says the speed of the intelligent analysis to which the multi-layered data is subjected takes the approach to a new level.


Fundamental to the system's operation are the safety and management transponders that are routinely fitted to many vessels detailing their whereabouts to overflying satellites. Of course, these transponders may not be present on some of the smallest boats, or may even be disabled or "spoofed" even where there are fitted.

But Project Eyes is pulling in satellite radar data as well - from which the larger boats cannot hide. And it is hoped that by targeting these key "trans-shipment" vessels, which conduct the mid-ocean exchanges of illegal catch, that many of the smaller "dark" boats can be disrupted as well.


Chile and the Pacific island republic of Palau will be among the first to use the system to help protect their fishing interests.

Palau is setting up a marine reserve, and with its economic waters extending over an area the size of France, it knows it faces an immense challenge in keeping tabs on a fleet of problematic boats from Asia.


Koebel Sakuma is a senior adviser to the president. He told BBC News: "We've seen an exponential increase in illegal activity in our region in the past two years. "It's a difficult situation for us in that we're a small country with limited resources and we're responsible for patrolling this vast area with one vessel donated by Australia.

"This technology will allow us to use our assets more efficiently."

And that will be true also of more developed nations. They could access the information to decide when best to send up drones or spotter planes to investigate suspicious trawling.


Tony Long reckons even big supermarkets will see a use for the technology. "Retailers can use this system to show due diligence down their supply chain and start to understand exactly where their fish is being caught by what vessels; and actually by driving fishing vessels to behave more transparently through that supply chain, we'll actually really start to change the behaviour of vessels out at sea."

Already, the German Metro Group, which deals in over 1.2bn euros ($1.4bn; £0.9bn) of fish products a year, has ideas for putting display boards at shop counters that would allow consumers to check, through the sale barcode, precisely where on the seas that fish supper was caught, even providing the name of the trawler involved.

Although the new system focuses on fishing, experts say it could quite easily be adapted to tackle other issues, such as general piracy, drug trafficking, smuggling and "bunkering".


Mark Hampson is the chief innovation officer at the Catapult. He commented: "By bringing different data sources on to an open platform, which is securely constructed so that the data can be kept confidential where appropriate, different users can build different applications on it. "And we hope that industrial partners will build applications on the platform and go out and address some of these fundable opportunities."

Harwell is a major node for the EU's new Sentinel constellation, a series of satellites being launched this decade to keep watch over Planet Earth. The Sentinel data will be open and free. The Catapult has been charged with driving new applications for all this information.

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US Navy Tests New GhostSwimmer Unmanned Underwater Vehicle

US Navy Tests New GhostSwimmer Unmanned Underwater Vehicle | Marine Technology |

The U.S. Navy has completed tests on the GhostSwimmer unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story (JEBLC-FS). GhostSwimmer is the latest in a series of projects developed by the chief of naval operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) project, Silent NEMO.

Silent NEMO is an experiment that explores the possible uses for biomimetic, unmanned underwater vehicles in the fleet. Over the past several weeks, Boston Engineering‘s tuna-sized device has been gathering data at JEBLC-FS on tides, varied currents, wakes, and weather conditions for the development of future tasks. “GhostSwimmer will allow the Navy to have success during more types of missions while keeping divers and Sailors safe,” said Michael Rufo, director of Boston Engineering’s Advanced Systems Group.


The GhostSwimmer was developed to resemble the shape and mimic the swimming style of a large fish. At a length of approximately 5 feet and a weight of nearly 100 pounds, the GhostSwimmer vehicle can operate in water depths ranging from 10 inches to 300 feet.


“It swims just like a fish does by oscillating its tail fin back and forth,” said Rufo. “The unit is a combination of unmanned systems engineering and unique propulsion and control capabilities.”

Its bio-mimicry provides additional security during low visibility intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and friendly hull inspections, while quieter than propeller driven craft of the same size, according to Navy Warfare Development Command (NWDC).


The robot is capable of operating autonomously for extended periods of time due to its long-lasting battery, but it can also be controlled via laptop with a 500-foot tether. The tether is long enough to transmit information while inspecting a ship’s hull, for example, but if operating independently (without a tether) the robot will have to periodically be brought to the surface to download its data.


“This project and others that we are working on at the CRIC are important because we are harnessing the brainpower and talents of junior Sailors,” said Capt. Jim Loper, department head for Concepts and Innovation, NWDC. “The opportunity for a young Sailor who has a good idea to get that idea heard, and to get it turned into action, is greater [now] than any other time in our Navy’s history.”


The CRIC was established in 2012 to provide junior leaders with an opportunity to identify and rapidly field emerging technologies that address the Navy’s most pressing challenges and aims to find ways to quickly employ them in the fleet.


“Our mantra is ‘you have permission to be creative.’ We want our people to go out there and dream big dreams and put them into action,” said Loper. “We want to see projects like this replicated throughout the fleet. The fusion of the deckplate brainpower with support of the most senior leadership in the Navy is going to keep us moving forward throughout the 21st century.”

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AWI kicks off FRAM Observatory Project

AWI kicks off FRAM Observatory Project | Marine Technology |

Scientists and engineers of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) are currently starting work on a long-term observatory with observation stations from the Norwegian Sea to the Arctic Ocean.


In the coming years, the AWI researchers intend to upgrade their existing long-term observatories along this key climatological interface into a comprehensive research infrastructure and deploy a wide range of modern marine technologies. The overriding objective is to be able to observe the changes in the ocean and its ecosystems from the surface to the deep sea with the aid of the new FRAM observatory. The Helmholtz Association has approved this strategic expansion investment and the German government and the state of Bremen are financing the establishment of this new platform for the first five years with € 25 million. technology by Mitra Energy Indonesia.


“The Arctic is changing faster than we thought – and the changes we’re finding in the ice cover, weather and use by humans is concurrently affecting life in the ocean. One of our primary goals is to observe the changes in the Arctic Ocean in all its facets and understand the causes and effects down to the deep-sea level,” says project coordinator Prof. Dr. Antje Boetius.


“Verankerungskette” (“Mooring Chain”) and “Hausgarten” (“House Garden”), which have been located in the Fram Strait for over 15 years, form the basis for the new FRAM (Frontiers in Arctic Marine Monitoring) research platform. “We will supplement our current stationary measuring units with a number of mobile components, such as deep-sea robots, ice buoys, gliders and autonomously operating underwater robots. These will enable us to extend our vision beyond “Verankerungskette” and “Hausgarten” from the Norwegian Sea to the Arctic,” explains Prof. Torsten Kanzow, co-coordinator and head of the AWI section Physical Oceanography of Polar Seas.


FRAM will be expanded over a period of five years. Following this phase, the Alfred Wegener Institute will assume operation and maintenance of this infrastructure. Scientists from ten sections at AWI are involved in the expansion and operation of FRAM. However, research cooperation with MARUM at the University of Bremen and GEOMAR in Kiel is planned as well. “FRAM is an excellent infrastructure that will be used by national and international research projects with the aim of obtaining a better understanding of the rapidly progressing changes in the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean. We’re also working internationally with Norwegian, French, Polish, Canadian, American and Japanese oceanographic institutes, which are all very interested in contributing their know-how to the FRAM infrastructure,” notes Antje Boetius.


One special feature of this research infrastructure is that it will be able to conduct concurrent physical, chemical and biological measurements on the basis of a multi-sensor approach throughout the entire year – even in the Arctic winter – using autonomous platforms. The FRAM objective represents a special challenge of having to carry out constant measurements of the light-suffused, ice-covered ocean surface, which is so important for the coupling of physical and biological processes. The research vessel POLARSTERN will travel to the study regions annually in order to replace sensor platforms and conduct additional measurements.


First, however, the FRAM team has a lot of development work to do. The harsh local weather conditions and the great distance from the mainland pose special challenges for both the technology and the scientists: “Our measurement area at the transition from the Norwegian Sea to the Arctic Ocean is largely covered by sea ice in winter, which among other things poses the risk that instruments which have to surface to transmit data will be destroyed by ice. So we need to find technical solutions that enable these devices to recognise whether the surface above them is covered with ice or clear. A second important issue is the robot power supply. They all need to operate so efficiently that their battery reserves are sufficient for at least a year,” says Torsten Kanzow.


Initial device prototypes that meet these requirements are currently being developed at AWI. They include autonomously operating deep-sea robots, which are being developed in cooperation with the Helmholtz alliance ROBEX, underwater winches with attached sensor profilers to enable study of the ice-covered ocean surface even during the Arctic winter – as well as sampling devices that photograph microscopic organisms in water and fix their DNA.

The FRAM project also includes the development of a data portal and a regional environment model so that the data can subsequently be used in as many different ways as possible. Scientists specialising in remote satellite sensing will also benefit: with its numerous measuring stations, the new long-term observatory will provide them with valuable validation data.

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Unmanned aerial vehicle offers a new view of killer whales

Unmanned aerial vehicle offers a new view of killer whales | Marine Technology |

For the first time, scientists have used an unmanned aerial vehicle to study killer whales from above. The device they're using is a remote-controlled hexacopter with a high-resolution camera mounted in its belly, and the photos it produces are beautiful and full of detail. The images offer an entirely new view of this species.


But scientists aren't taking pictures just because they look nice. The images contain detailed information that scientists can use to monitor the health of individual killer whales and of their population as a whole.

To get these photos, scientists from NOAA Fisheries teamed up with colleagues at the Vancouver Aquarium. The animals they studied are the Northern Resident killer whales of British Columbia, a population that's listed as threatened under Canada's Species At Risk Act, and the pilots were trained and operating under permits issued by the Canadian Government. Like the endangered Southern Residents that spend summers near Seattle, these whales eat salmon—mainly Chinook salmon—and some of the salmon runs they rely on are much smaller than they used to be. In fact, several Chinook runs are themselves endangered, and scientists are concerned that a lack of prey may be limiting the whale populations.


The main question scientists are trying to answer is: Are the whales getting enough to eat? To find out, they fly the hexacopter at an altitude of more than 100 feet, high enough that the whales don't notice it, but near enough to get photographs that are incredibly revealing. Scientists have previously taken aerial photographs of killer whales from a helicopter, but those photos are taken from a much higher altitude, and the cost can be prohibitive.


By analyzing the hexacopter photos, scientists can see how fat or skinny individual whales are. They can also see which whales are pregnant and what percentage of pregnancies are carried to term. Currently, scientists do a summer census to learn out how many whales have died since the year before. "But mortality is a pretty coarse measure of how well the population is doing because the problem, if there is one, has already occurred," said John Durban, a biologist with NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. But the hexacopter, Durban said, "can give us a more sensitive measure that we might be able to respond to before whales die."

Note: Whales are very sensitive to what goes on around them. In this case, the researchers had permits for working with this at-risk species, including permits granted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and they are trained to recognize if their activities are disturbing the animals. Researchers kept the hexacopter at least 100 feet above the whales at all times. The 100 foot approach is only allowable under a research permit. For non-research-permitted activities, regulations require an altitude of 1000 or even 1500 feet, depending on the species. If you're a hobbyist with a hexacopter, please respect the regulations, and marine mammals, by giving them the required space.

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Camouflage sheet inspired by octopus

Camouflage sheet inspired by octopus | Marine Technology |

Based on the camouflage abilities of octopuses and cuttlefish, engineers in the US have built a flexible material that changes colour to match its surroundings. The new design features a grid of 1mm cells, containing a temperature-driven dye that switches colour on demand.

So far it only responds in black-and-white, but the team hopes that the principles of their design will have commercial and military applications.

The work appears in the journal PNAS. Senior author Prof John Rogers, from the University of Illinois, said the new sheet was the fruit of a collaboration between experts in biology, materials, computing and electrical engineering.

"Animals in the natural world - particularly cephalopods: octopus, squid and cuttlefish - have really spectacular colour-changing capabilities," he told BBC News. Prof Rogers' team set out to see what could be learned from such natural examples, and build a new material based on those insights. In particular, they copied the three-layer design seen in the skin of these animals: the top layer contains the colours, the middle layer drives the colour changes, and the lower layer senses the background patterns to be copied.

Each component in the new sheets, however, does its job quite differently from the three layers that do the same job in an octopus's skin. The bottom layer in the engineered system contains a grid of photosensors, which detect changes in light and transmit that pattern to "actuators" in the layer above. These actuators take the place of muscles within octopus skin, which control colour-changing organs in the surface layer. When the background changes, the cells within the material switch colour within one or two seconds

The uppermost layer in the artificial version uses a temperature-sensitive pigment, which goes from black to transparent at precisely 47C. That temperature change has to be produced by a current from the actuators underneath. This is both a much less efficient system, and a much more limited colour repertoire, than what shimmers across the eight-legged canvasses of the sea.

Nonetheless, Prof Rogers' team is justifiably proud of its achievement.

"This is the first full, working system of its kind - it looks like a thin sheet of paper," he told BBC News. "But it's nothing close to being ready to deploy, in a military setting or anything else. It's really a beginning point, to focus on the engineering science around how you might create systems that have this type of function."


In particular, the system needs to improve its spatial and colour resolution, and its efficiency - possibly by incorporating solar cells instead of using external power. This could all be done by adapting existing technology, Prof Rogers said, such as that seen in flat-screen displays.

Prof Anne Neville, a UK expert in biologically inspired technologies, said the work was of a "very high standard" and was impressed by the number of different disciplines involved. "It's very innovative and very interesting," said Prof Neville, who is the Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies at the University of Leeds.


The applications go beyond the obvious associations of camouflage, where Prof Rogers said there is "obvious potential" - potential which led to the work being funded by the US Navy. "What I've been intrigued by is a number of folks who have approached us for completely other classes of application, that I wouldn't initially have guessed at."

One of these was an art professor in Chicago, who is interested in colour-changing fabrics for high-end fashion, which could respond to ambient lighting. "In that case you probably don't want camouflage necessarily," Prof Rogers said. "Maybe you want your clothing configured so that you stand out from the crowd." Such "anti-camouflage" would draw more inspiration from the deep sea creatures that use their skin to attract, rather than avoid, attention - like cuttlefish that mesmerise their prey with rippling stripes.

Prof Rogers has also had conversations with his own university's school of architecture, about the possibility of dynamic, colour-changing walls and other interior surfaces. These grand designs remain some way off, however, and Prof Rogers emphasised that they are not his priority.

"Our goal as researchers is not to develop a colour-changing wallpaper. That's a vision that somebody had, for an application - and indeed, it's kind of cool. But our emphasis is more on the basics, around biologically inspired engineering."

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Oil and gas fields in UK could become CO2 dumps

Oil and gas fields in UK could become CO2 dumps | Marine Technology |

The UK's exhausted oil and gas fields in the North Sea could be transformed into a lucrative dump for Europe's CO2 emissions, MPs say. The Energy and Climate Change Committee says nearby nations could capture the emissions from their power stations, then transport the CO2 offshore in pipes.


North Sea rocks that have been sucked dry of oil and gas could be pumped full of the unwanted CO2. Critics say the idea is fanciful. But Tim Yeo, the committee's chair, told the BBC that "the key to carbon capture and storage is economics". "The UK's geology under the North Sea is a potential asset to exploit and if we can find ways of getting another income stream by accepting someone else's unwanted CO2 it might move forward the date when CCS (carbon capture and storage) in the UK is commercially viable," he added.

Mr Yeo also hopes that by forcing CO2 into the crevices containing residual trapped hydrocarbons, the UK will be able to squeeze more gas and oil from depleted reserves. Overall, his committee is highly critical of the UK government's commitment to CCS. It believes a new industry could be created to transport and store unwanted CO2.

"Any decline in North Sea (extraction) activity could be compensated for in carbon transport and storage activity," it says. The idea is being promoted by the Crown Estate, which governs the UK's sea bed.


But Nick Molho from WWF told the BBC: "We were very surprised to see this idea - and surprised to see it is thought that the North Sea has enough capacity for all the CO2 we need to dispose of. "It seems to be running ahead of itself - let's get the first steps in carbon capture and storage sorted out first."

In 2007 ministers launched a competition to kick-start CCS. To date, it has delivered only initial funding to two projects - a gas plant at Peterhead in north-east Scotland and a coal plant, Drax, in North Yorkshire. The expected start date of CCS has been pushed back from 2014 to 2020. The MPs say the delay has called into question the credibility of government policy.

Mr Yeo said: "Fitting power stations with technology to capture and store carbon is absolutely vital if we are to avoid dangerously destabilizing the climate. "These two demonstration projects will not be enough to kick-start the CCS industry or have a significant impact on our carbon budgets," The world's first full-scale power plant with full CCS is due to open soon in the US - the CO2 will be used to enhance oil recovery.

The technology has been progressing slowly worldwide, with Norway - previously a world leader, reducing support. WWF said the government should not plan new fossil fuel power plants under the assumption that CCS would become economically viable.

But Energy Minister Michael Fallon said: the UK was ahead of the rest of Europe with the Drax and Peterhead CCS projects, which were "actively undertaking detailed engineering studies ahead of full construction".


He said that as the £1bn being invested in CCS, there would "also be additional support through low-carbon Contracts for Difference for a number of years to come, so it's important we take the time to get our decisions right and follow a robust process", Mr Fallon added: "Our vision for CCS in the UK does not stop at these first projects. "We want to see a strong and successful CCS industry able to compete on cost with other low carbon technologies in the 2020s."

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3D printing used to model shark skin

3D printing used to model shark skin | Marine Technology |

Scientists have used a 3D-printed model of shark skin to show how tooth-like scales help the predators to cruise efficiently. Viewed up close, a shark's skin bristles with tiny teeth or "denticles" which aid swimming.


Engineers have tried to mimic the roughness of shark skin when designing swim suits and even racing cars. But the denticles have never been so well reproduced before, says a report in the Journal of Experimental Biology. Perhaps counter-intuitively, creating turbulence near the edge of a moving object can reduce drag. In this way, the denticles act like the dimples on a golf ball. Now, researchers have also seen them alter specific currents that help propel the shark through water.

George Lauder and his colleagues took a detailed scan of a tiny square of skin from a mako shark, and built a 3D model of a single denticle just 0.15mm long. The challenge was then to manufacture a synthetic skin, with thousands of these denticles embedded in a smooth, flexible membrane. "It took us about a year," said Prof Lauder, of Harvard University.

3D printing builds up new objects layer-by-layer, following a computer-generated design. To print the shark skin, the scientists had to use two different materials for the hard, tooth-like structures and for the flexible base - much like the different coloured inks used to print a picture. The particular shape of the denticles also posed difficulties: "Because they're overhung, the 3D printers have to print a supporting material, which you then have to remove," Prof Lauder told the BBC. "It took a while to work out all the tricks."

The artificial skin has impressed Oliver Crimmen, a fish expert at the Natural History Museum who has previously advised Speedo on swim suit design. "I used to think, how on earth would you mimic that complex structure accurately?" he said. "3D printing is it - what a marvellous application for it." Because the resolution of even the latest 3D printers is limited, the artificial denticles are about 10 times larger than the real ones seen on the skin of a mako shark.

Nonetheless, when the team stuck the new artificial skin onto a small, flexible paddle and studied it in a water tank, they were able to see the benefit sharks glean from their unusual scales. A paddle with the new, toothy skin delivered a boost of up to 6.6% in swimming speed, compared to one coated with the smooth membrane alone. The artificial denticles also allowed the paddle to travel the same simulated distance while using 5.9% less energy. "That's a huge effect, when factored over the entire lifetime of an animal that is constantly swimming," said Prof Lauder.

Mr Crimmen agrees. "If you think about it, sharks, which don't have a swim bladder... are on the go most of their lives. Swimming's hard work, especially if you're of any size." Interestingly, the advantages were most obvious at relatively slow speeds, when the shark is cruising rather than pouncing. "It's during the steady, long-distance migrations that you'd really begin to see the benefits," Prof Lauder explained.

Using a specialised technique to photograph the flow of water, the team also found that the "leading edge vortex", a small whirlpool of low pressure generated by the paddle's movement, was stronger with the denticles than without. Prof Lauder believes this change in water flow could be crucial. "It can help suck the fish forward," he said. "One of the things that our flow visualisation has suggested is that the structure of the skin may actually increase the thrust - the engine of propulsion - rather than just reducing the drag."

Researchers have studied the fluid dynamics of moulds and real samples of shark skin before. Prof Lauder is especially pleased with this new, 3D-printed model because it moves and bends, just like sharks. "You have a rigid scale structure embedded into a flexible membrane, that can then swim."


Don't expect to be pulling on a denticle-laden swim suit any time soon, however. Transferring this type of design to a textile might take decades, Prof Lauder said. "But if you could do it, you would see a dramatic effect on swimming performance!" The idea of copying design elements from biological systems is known as biomimetics. 3D printing technology has made such mimicry a lot easier and, importantly, it allows the designs to be tweaked.

For example, Prof Lauder and his team have already begun to play with the spacing, arrangement and shape of the denticles. "I want to know what causes this effect," he said.  Aside from that curiosity, Prof Lauder enjoys learning from nature. "It pays us to understand how the natural world works," he told BBC News. "Millions of years of evolution give us solutions to problems that we may not have thought of."

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