Commercialising UK Marine Innovation: coming together to meet our greater challenges

Huw Gullick highlights the need for a more collaborative approach to UK funding for marine innovation.

Posted 18th January 2023|3 minute read

Funding marine innovation: where does the UK stand?

There’s no doubt that it’s an exciting time for Marine Autonomous Systems (MAS) innovation in the UK, with groups and initiatives happening around the country contributing to the development of high-tech marine technology. Investment in these initiatives paves the way for these organisations to contribute to vital global agendas including, the transition to a low carbon economy and meeting our net-zero targets.

However, when it comes to the funding of MAS in the UK, we have some way to go. For the wider national and international communities to reap the benefits of this innovation, there must be more investment to push these technologies from being good prototypes and science grade platforms to scalable commercial systems capable of a variety of different uses.

There’s also a risk the UK could fall behind if we don’t adopt a more collaborative approach as a marine science community. Naturally, funding has to be spread across several similar initiatives but, maybe a more collaborative approach would make an already impressive level of innovation sky-rocket even further? It is common to see fifty £300K projects ongoing with different organisations, many working towards a similar purpose but commonly limited by their budget. If there was an opportunity for that same £15m to be pooled and aligned to one project, together, we could tackle an even greater challenge. This misalignment between technological ambition and funding structure sets the pace at which we can work on these global challenges.

The need for marine innovation in the UK

Marine Autonomous Systems (MAS) provide oceanographers with the opportunity to deliver new capabilities for marine science in a way that is more cost-effective and safer, removing humans from potentially dangerous operations at sea, and allowing ocean science to go longer, further and deeper. They provide scale and allow us to measure more simultaneously. They also provide a role in working towards the net-zero agenda, lowering carbon emissions by reducing the reliance on heavy fuel burning ships.

The need for innovation in MAS is further highlighted in the context of a global pandemic. Operating autonomous machinery from a ship brings challenges as we learn to live with COVID-19. An outbreak on a research ship or an oil rig could put the whole infrastructure out of action. The move towards Remote Operating Centres (ROC), allowing autonomous machinery to be operated onshore or, even from homes, means that operations can adapt to social distancing and mitigate the risks of a staff member falling ill at sea.

Furthermore, the use of MAS to operate machinery offshore has excellent economic benefits, reducing the cost of operations by orders of magnitude. For example, offshore vessels such as research ships can run to over £150K per day to operate. Through innovation, we are now on the cusp of MAS being able to perform equivalent surveys for circa £10K a day. Combining this remote operation capability with digital technology such as digital twins and augmented reality creates a new way of working that really challenges the way we think about offshore operations.

Collaborating to achieve a more sustainable future for Oceanography

The benefits of funding and collaborating on MAS innovation extend far beyond safer, cheaper and less carbon-heavy offshore operations, although each of these justifications in themselves carries a heavy weight.

One challenge where collaboration and funding of MAS could provide a solution is for the offshore energy sector. MAS has the potential to help accelerate our transition to a low carbon economy by improving our understanding of the seafloor by providing closer, less intrusive means of surveying.

The solution to this challenge extends far beyond the use of robots. However, there needs to be a shift change, moving from robots as a concept to robots becoming the norm. For this to be achieved, both funders and organisations must come together to develop the on, and in, water infrastructure to enable future MAS operations.

This includes:

  • Ensuring the ocean is adequately instrumented with communication technologies for positioning and data harvesting with clever artificial intelligence built-in, that takes that data and translates it to actionable information, allowing end-users to complete tasks.
  • Collaboration to develop the clever software and interfaces to be built into robotics to enable them to communicate in a heterogeneous network with each other and the comms infrastructure in the ocean.

Additionally, in the context of working towards a net-zero economy, MAS either need to carry their power or have the ability to charge and recharge at sea. This provides another infrastructure challenge for the marine science community, that needs addressing now in readiness for a future low-carbon, lower-cost robotics enabled ocean economy.

With these challenges in mind, there is no doubt that with improved investment and collaboration in the marine science community, we can accelerate marine innovation and reach our net-zero targets sooner.

About the author

Huw Gullick

Huw Gullick

Managing Director

Huw’s spent over 15 years working in some of the world’s most respected technology and engineering organisations. With a technical background in aero-engines and materials engineering, he’s responsible for the overall leadership of NOC Innovations, and is a member of the executive team at the National Oceanography Centre.