Science & Environment

Ocean Infinity: Exploration company goes for robot boats at scale

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionOliver Plunkett: "I expect that we'll operate them in groups of three or four"

The maritime and scientific communities have set themselves the ambitious target of 2030 to map Earth's entire ocean floor.

It's ambitious because, 10 years out from this deadline, they're starting from a very low level.

You can argue about the numbers but it's in the region of 80% of the global seafloor that's either completely unknown or has had no modern measurement applied to it.

The international Seabed 2030 Project was set up to close the data gap and has announced a number of initiatives to get it done.

What's clear, however, is that much of this work will have to leverage new technologies or at the very least max the existing ones. Which makes the news from Ocean Infinity - that it's creating a fleet of ocean-going robots - all the more interesting.

US-based OI is a relatively new exploration and survey company. It was founded in 2016.

It's made headlines by finding some high-profile wrecks, including the Argentinian submarine San Juan and the South Korean bulk carrier Stellar Daisy. It also led an ultimately unsuccessful "no find, no fee" effort to locate the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

OI's strategy has always been to throw the latest hardware and computing power at a problem. The move into Uncrewed Surface Vessels (USV) at scale is therefore the logical next step, says CEO Oliver Plunkett.

Image copyright OCEAN INFINITY
Image caption Ocean Infinity's survey gear has found a number of high-profile wrecks

"We've ordered 11 robots, different sizes. The smallest ones are 21m; the biggest are up to 37m," he told BBC News. "They will be capable of transoceanic journeys, wholly unmanned, controlled from control centres on land.

"Each of them will be fitted out with an array of sensors and equipment, but also their own capability to deploy tethered robots to inspect right down to the bottom of the ocean, 6,000m below the surface."

The boats will be used to search for missing objects, yes; but they'll also inspect pipelines, and survey bed conditions for telecoms cables and off-shore wind farms. They'll even to do freight, says Dan Hook who'll run the robot fleet for OI under the spin-out name of Armada.

"The 37m will actually take about 60 tonnes of deck cargo. We're looking at logistics services in places like the North Sea, running containers out to oil and gas platforms."

And with every USV equipped with a hull-mounted, multi-beam echo-sounder, the boats have the potential to add to the global seafloor database.

Armada specifications

Image copyright Ocean Infinity

Size: 21 metres (35 tonnes) long and 37 metres (120 tonnes) long

Speed and range: 12 knots. 21m - 3,700 nautical miles; 37m - 5,000 nautical miles

Propulsion: Diesel electric. Reduced CO2 emissions compared with large ships

Armada will be based in the Southampton area of the UK's South Coast. Or at least, that's where the main control room will be. The boats themselves will be positioned around the world, along with a small number of maintenance staff.

When a mission is instigated, the Southampton operator (or an operator in an identical control centre in Austin, Texas) will drive the vehicle out of port, maintaining command and situational awareness through satellite links.

We've already seen something similar come out of the recent Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize, which sought to find a range of innovative seafloor mapping technologies.

This was a 12m USV called Sea-Kit that proved its credentials by deploying and recovering an autonomous survey submarine in the Mediterranean and by making the first robotic cargo run across the North Sea.

The OI difference is to bring scale to the endeavour.

The growth in the deployment of uncrewed vessels inevitably raises questions about safety - similar to the ones being asked of driverless cars.

"This is a new industry and we've got to get across the message that this must be done responsibly," said Hook. "It will take time, but I'm convinced that it won't be long before people trust a robot to read the chart and look out for things at night better than a human can. It's going to come."

Image copyright SEA-KIT International Ltd
Image caption Sea-Kit took British oysters to Belgium and brought back a crate of beer

Since Ocean Infinity's announcement of the Armada fleet, there's been quite a bit of chatter about the company resuming its search for MH370.

Oliver Plunkett describes OI's involvement in the hunt for the missing jet as "unfinished business". But he stresses that any further survey work would require some credible new evidence first.

To that end, OI is involved with an academic group that is conducting a start-from-scratch re-evaluation of all the available data on the airliner's disappearance. If this new analysis yielded something worth pursuing, could the Armada USVs be involved?

"When we set out to design this latest generation of robots, we deliberately built them to be capable of transoceanic operations. So the simple answer to the question is 'yes', they are absolutely the right type of tool for that type of project," said Plunkett.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Oliver Plunkett describes the hunt for the missing jet as "unfinished business"
Image copyright Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Image caption Most of the ocean floor's shape is very poorly resolved

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos