Scale, not innovation, the big autonomy challenge

When working in innovation, it’s easy to fixate on the next big thing

Posted 14th March 2023|2 minute read

And that is certainly the case in many areas of maritime. But not all.

Last week I spoke on a panel at the World Ocean Summit on the issue of ‘Technology to restore ocean health’. There is so much innovation within this space, in particular around new blue carbon approaches.

But in one area in which I focus, marine autonomy, the issue is less about the next innovation and more about the scale of using what is being developed now. Let me explain.

Autonomy in the ocean opens up a world of possibilities. Much of the work that happens in this space has been characterised as ‘dull, dirty and dangerous’. Dull for those undertaking it – repetitive, and often operating in a bleak environment. Dirty, as the default is a manned vessel being sent out to assess, transport or fix current infrastructure. And dangerous, as anyone working in freezing waters, alongside powerful tidal surges and within changeable weather patterns can attest.

By using autonomy we can develop high skill jobs around technology and machine learning; use small, battery operated vessels instead of gas-guzzling ships; and create a safer environment, minimising human error.

And technology has advanced so much in recent years, including within the UK and the developing Solent cluster.

But the next stage needs to be about scale, rather than new innovations. Yes, developments in battery technologies and sensors, going further for longer and collecting more data than ever before, will happen.

But autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) and Marine Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) are already sophisticated bits of kit, ready to make their mark.

We have seen in recent years the increasing use of autonomy – with marine science, renewables, oil and gas, and shipping developing and adapting technologies.

And the potential is there to go further. Autonomous vessels are the smart option when it comes to doing environmental monitoring around a new wind turbine, surveying a disused oil field or monitoring an undersea cable. Cheaper, more affective and better for the environment (the irony of conventional oil powered ships being sent to undertake environmental monitoring should not be lost.)

So yes, strides have been made to increase scale, but there is so much further to go. So how can scale be delivered? I’d suggest there are three areas that need attention.

Firstly, regulation. The Department for Transport “Future of transport regulatory review consultation: Maritime autonomy and remote operations” at the end of 2021 has yet to receive a government response. Defining such things as MASS and Remote Operation Centres (ROCs) will start to create the framework needed to use autonomy more widely. The tech is there, so let’s see the regulation catch up.

Secondly, the tax regime can have a role to play. Those operating in the ocean should be rewarded for using less polluting technologies, including autonomous vehicles. Tax breaks can help investment in technologies we know can play such a positive role.

And thirdly, the recent High Seas Treaty negotiated in New York pointed towards a new, more regulated ocean space with Environmental Impact Assessments for every offshore development. And what better way to meet this expected demand than to use autonomy to provide environmental monitoring before a facility is built, during construction and through its operation.

For someone who works in innovation to say innovation is not the trajectory of the sector over the short to medium term, might seem strange. But the ocean is vast, and opportunities to use autonomy across a range of sectors even more so.

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.