The sailors of the future

By Nuno Cruz, coordinator of the Centre for Robotics and Autonomous Systems

Portugal already maintains one of the largest exclusive economic zones in the EU, with a pending request at the UN to expand the continental shelf. If approved, Portugal will have sovereignty to explore and exploit natural resources from a total area of more than four million square kilometres. We’re talking about a region 40 times larger than the continental territory; the vast majority in deep waters, more than a thousand metres deep.

In continental territories, the use of remote (e.g., satellite) monitoring allows the fast characterisation of vast areas, with great detail. However, seawater prevents the propagation of electromagnetic waves, so there is no equivalent technology for remote exploration of the seabed. These exploration processes are usually done on site by marine scientists who board oceanographic vessels equipped with cutting-edge technology, observe the environment, collect samples, analyse data, communicate with their peers, draw conclusions, and publish results. Oceanographic campaigns cost tens of thousands of euros per day, not to mention the cost of the equipment used, which breaks down more easily in hostile environments than in traditional laboratories. Even in those cases where campaigns last for several days, their coverage is extremely low; in this sense, vast regions of the seabed remain unknown.

Over the last decades, robotics has played a key role in these exploration endeavours, allowing the collection of data without significant risk to humans. The efforts of the scientific community have focused on the physical robustness of robots, the measurements’ accuracy, their spatial-temporal location, and the increase in autonomy in terms of range, depth, environment perception and mission duration. Despite the progress made, there is still a long way to go before these platforms replicate massively, towards enabling a comprehensive knowledge of the deep sea. In this sense, we need a new generation of curious minds with enough motivation and commitment to address the challenges that remain. For example, the weakening of electromagnetic signals makes it impossible to use positioning systems like GPS or radio communications. At the same time, sound waves propagate with much less attenuation, but have a significant propagation time and are influenced by multiple disturbances in the sea (natural and human). In addition, their use should be minimised to avoid impact on marine life that rely on acoustics to survive. In terms of robots’ autonomy, there are several dimensions that need to be further explored: from increasing on-board “intelligence”, towards a better perception of the surrounding environment, to the more practical aspects of energy management, which include the environment’s energy harvesting systems, increased efficiency in movement and the installation of charging stations distributed on the seabed.

Hence, we must attract younger talent to address these and all other challenges ahead. Fortunately, there are fewer social, cultural and gender barriers in terms of access to science and technology, thus contributing to an effective variety of outlooks that promotes the search for new solutions. At the same time, younger people today have access to unprecedented quality and quantity of information, as well as experimental means to accelerate the demonstration of concepts, and are aware of environmental issues and the need to preserve and monitor natural resources – the oceans in particular. It’s up to us, part of research teams, to show them that we can take advantage of their potential, and that the results of their efforts can have a very significant impact on new generations. At INESC TEC, we have been doing this since very early on, and on many dimensions, to promote a close contact with robotics as an integrative subject, in which the concepts of systems engineering are fundamental. Regarding higher education courses, we promote participation in extracurricular projects, provide grants for scientific initiation in research, and disseminate activities in different students’ hubs. At the high school level, we organise, participate and support robotics courses, make presentations and demonstrations in schools, and welcome students to our laboratories. More recent examples include the participation in the Engineering Week 2022 and the Mostra UP – which, despite having an impact only in the long run, contribute to this continuous effort of dissemination and awareness, among students and the parents and/or teachers who accompany them.

The sailors of the future will be mostly robots. As for engineers and scientists, they will remain flesh and blood for a long time, developing new technologies to collect more and better data, while gathering knowledge and developing new applications for future breakthroughs. Our current commitment is to find and attract this new generation of talents, so that underwater exploration can be done effectively and efficiently, and above all, sustainably.

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