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Robots collaborate on remote sampling of zooplankton

In the first week of summer, a dynamic team of robots, researchers, students, and engineers in SFI Harvest and AUR-Lab embarked on a mission to sample zooplankton off the coast of Mausund, Norway.

Two people in front of computer screens
Andre Olaisen (left) and Karoline Barstein (right) in front of the screens on a summer campaign for remote controlling of robots. Photo: NTNU AUR-Lab

However, they weren’t all physically present at the site. While three robots and three engineers braved the open ocean off the coast of Trøndelag, the majority of the team operated remotely from a control room at NTNU Trondheim Biological Station (TBS), 180 kilometres away – literally beyond the horizon.

But how was this possible?

Virtual robotic networking

Four people in front of several screens.
How does the mission go? The robots are 180 kilometers away. From the left: PhD students Andre Olaisen and Karoline Barstein, and Professor Martin Ludvigsen at NTNU AUR-Lab. Photo: Muriel Dunn/SINTEF.

The answer lies in an intricate virtual network, advanced satellite communication, and the seamless cooperation of autonomous robotic systems both on and below the ocean surface.

Coupled with the expertise of researchers in fields such as robotics, adaptive sampling, underwater acoustics, and particle imaging, the campaign was a demonstration of cutting-edge technology in marine science.

Graph depicting agents and communications links
Agents and communication links.

The core of these operations lay in the collaboration between NTNU’s Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASVs), Grethe and AutoNaut, and the Light Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (LAUV), Thor.

These robots, supported by their operators and researchers, formed an integrated system for detecting and analysing zooplankton aggregations.

Robots communicating

One person sitting in front of multiple screens.
Muriell Dunn in SINTEF Ocean is also part of this summer campaign. Photo: Martin Ludvigsen/NTNU

Grethe and AutoNaut mapped the area with echosounders and used a neural network to pinpoint the locations and depths of zooplankton layers. This critical information was then relayed to Thor, which dived into the depths to capture high-magnification particle images and quantify the individual zooplankton particles.

Using echosounder data from Grethe, particle images, and utilizing adaptive sampling strategies, Thor could act like a sniffer dog, aiming for the most promising zooplankton hotspots.

This targeted approach not only enhanced the efficiency of the sampling process but also ensured that the data collected was of the highest quality.

Red boat on blue, calm sea.
AutoNaut on duty in Mausund, 180 kilometres away from the control room in Trondheim. Photo: AUR-Lab

On the ground – or rather, at sea – the field engineers prepared and deployed the vehicles.

Remote operation

Meanwhile, back at TBS in Trondheim, a simple click of a mouse initiated the operations. The control room, a high-tech nerve centre, provided a comprehensive overview of the campaign.

A multitude of screens displayed video streams from the workboat, video calls with the field engineers, AIS plots, sea charts, and vehicle tracks, all while a supervisor updated the operation schedule in real-time, ensuring seamless coordination.

The mission’s progress and data were logged into an ArcGIS interactive map, enhancing coordination and tracking.

Six people sitting in front of screens.
Researchers and vehicle operators running zooplankton sampling operations from the the control room at Trondheim Biological Station – TBS. Photo: Martin Ludvigsen/NTNU

As researchers and engineers in underwater robotics and sensing, we must admit we cherish the opportunity to venture into the field and experience life at sea. However, this campaign exemplifies the future of zooplankton sensing with underwater robots – operating beyond the horizon.

The future of marine research

The remote operators and researchers could debug their code, prepare, plan, and re-plan operations without the discomforts of seasickness, sunburns, wet keyboards, and unreliable internet, and even without leaving their base in Trondheim.

This setup not only improves working conditions but also significantly cuts costs, saves time, reduces human risk, and allows robots to operate more efficiently, and in the future: persistently.

This campaign represents the future of marine research – leveraging advanced robotics and remote operations to achieve what was previously unimaginable.

The ability to conduct intricate and targeted sampling missions utilizing the strengths of each modality of robots allows for more frequent and efficient data collection.

A gateway to immense possibilities

This efficiency is crucial for timely and accurate monitoring of zooplankton populations, which plays a vital role in marine ecosystems and could be an important protein resource for a growing world population.

Moreover, the cooperative operation of multiple autonomous systems demonstrated during this campaign highlights the potential for even more complex and ambitious missions in the future.

The horizon is no longer a limit but a gateway to immense possibilities.

The campaign was financed by The Research Council of Norway through SFI Harvest, a centre for research-based innovation.

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