Autonomous vessels are being trialled in North America to test their potential in the war against illegal fishing – a fascinating project supervised by IMarEST Fellow, Justin Manley.
According to a recent US Coast Guard report, illegal fishing has now replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat.
While perpetrators are well aware that their activities are extremely difficult to monitor and police, let alone prosecute, advances in marine autonomous technology may offer a breakthrough in how agencies could, in the near-future, locate, identify and capture vital evidence of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.
At the forefront of this new approach is a design competition currently taking place in North America to test the potential of long-range, long-term, unmanned patrols and their data- and evidence-gathering ability.
Three leading marine technology companies demonstrated their technology in front of the USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and WildAid, a leading conservation organisation.
Trials aimed to prove how uncrewed craft could eventually help protect areas of special importance to marine ecosystems.
Covid restrictions meant the initial trials in December had to take place at separate locations, with the results presented to evaluators remotely.
OpenOcean Robotics, based in British Columbia, Canada, is running a solar-powered modular platform equipped with a range of sensors including a towed hydrophone and cameras able to identify a fishing boat’s name and how many people it has on board, even at night; Connecticut-based technology firm ThayerMahan is using a combined submersible and float set-up equipped to detect fishing vessels through their acoustic signatures; and Marine Advanced Robotics, based in Silicon Valley, is using a flying drone working in tandem with an uncrewed surface vessel.
The project is being overseen by robotics expert, and IMarEST Fellow, Justin Manley.
"Historically career paths in the marine sector have been quite clear-cut, but we now need to build new skills." Justin Manley
Manley’s career began at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) when he joined an undergraduate project to tag and follow tuna. He went on to conduct research at its Autonomous Underwater Vehicles Lab before becoming a technology consultant to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a founding member of the US Integrated Ocean Observing System Advisory Committee.
He started his own blue tech consultancy, Just Innovation Inc., in 2015, and became a Fellow of the IMarEST in 2017.
Justin, what makes this project different to other marine robotic trials?
While the technologies being used in this project aren’t particularly new, they bring together a diverse set of technologies in an exciting and innovative approach.
When will robotics start to come into their own in the marine sector?
It could be as soon as the next two years, but it will certainly ramp up after that as costs and complexity continue to decrease and regulatory frameworks start to become clearer. An innovation we’re likely to see more of is robot aircraft flying from USVs (uncrewed surface vessels) – an area of development the US Coast Guard is particularly active in.
How will marine robotics affect marine careers?
It’s a good question. Historically career paths in the marine sector have been quite clear-cut, but we now need to build new skills – and fast. We should be looking more towards the tech giants to see the skills, such as programming, that they’re now developing. And we need to get more young people coming into the marine sector from robotics, to grow a viable pipeline of labour.
What is your involvement with IMAREST at the moment?
I’m taking part in the Operational Oceanography SIG, which is being led by Ralph Rayner, and working on a collaboration between with the Marine Technical Society and IMarEST on their methodologies of chartered professionalism to find out how they could be applied across both organisations in the future.
What excites you most about your work going forward in 2021?
I’m really looking forward to doing more robotics work with start-ups in the marine technology sector. Robotics will be central to maritime’s push towards automation and decarbonisation over the next decade – and while it’s true to say maritime has traditionally been slow to evolve, we’re now on a path where the entire sector is going to have to change fundamentally and adapt quickly.
Dennis O’Neill is a journalist specialising in the marine sector.