The $24 million Antarctic Gateway Partnership, launched by the Australian Government in November 2014, includes $7.5 million to establish a marine technology hub to build next-generation hybrid autonomous vehicles capable of exploring hundreds of kilometres under metres-thick ice.
Leading this research and development is AMC’s autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) and fluid mechanics expert Dr Alex Forrest.
“Tasmania has a real critical mass in terms of Antarctic research, robotic or otherwise, that we are capitalising on through this project,” Dr Forrest said.
“There are four main areas of research in the Antarctic Gateway Partnership – ice shelf cavities, marine biology, solid earth and marine technologies. We’ll be leading the marine technologies theme and developing a new AUV that can go underneath ice cavities, sample the biology and provide feedback for all the other themes.”
Work is underway to establish the AUV facility at AMC in Launceston, including the recruitment of four new positions. The aim is to research, design and build the robots over the next three years in readiness for deployment in 2018, the final year of the project.
“We’ll be looking at what the interesting science questions are and how an AUV facility can develop multiple types of vehicles with the support staff necessary to target those projects,” Dr Forrest said.
“One of the biggest challenges now is the conceptual design phase. We need to build a vehicle, we need to build it quickly, so what instruments do we need on board? What are the attributes that we want the vehicle to have? In essence these robots are relatively simple in design, but it’s their range, capabilities, instruments and data sensors that we want to expand upon in a novel way.”
Dr Forrest has spent nearly a decade specialising in under-ice deployments in the Arctic and Antarctic. Most recently, he was part of an international research expedition to Antarctica in October 2014 where he studied algae growth underneath sea ice using the AUV UBC-Gavia, a vehicle based at AMC.
The project is a collaboration between AMC and the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (University of Tasmania), the University of Canterbury (New Zealand), and Aarhus University (Denmark), with funding from the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute.
It aimed to compare measurements taken above ice using traditional ice coring techniques with measurements made below the ice with the AUV. The seven-member team spent 21 days at Cape Evans in the New Zealand-managed territory accessed from Scott Base conducting their investigations.
“We’re trying to understand the dynamics of algae growth and distribution because these organisms are the first step in the Southern Ocean ecosystem. So in order to understand the productivity of this system in under-ice conditions, we need to understand the distribution of the ice algae,” Dr Forrest said.
Robotic under-ice sampling is far more efficient and accurate than traditional methods – divers are limited to operating within a 20-metre radius of the drilled hole and core sampling gathers data from single locations. Robots can be used for broadscale measurements that capture any horizontal variability, rather than estimating it based on fixed point sampling.
“This AUV has very expensive navigation equipment that estimates its exact location, providing the longitude and latitude for every measurement down to centimetre accuracy. So we know exactly where we are when we’re taking a measurement and from that we can build three-dimensional spatial maps,” he said.
While the UBC-Gavia has a relatively short range of 20 to 30 kilometres, the aim of the new AUV facility is to develop a fleet of robots fitted with an array of scientific sensors and capable of travelling much longer distances.
It’s an ambitious project and one that is not without risk.
“While working under ice is ideally suited for robotic exploration, it poses significant environmental challenges that require innovative engineering solutions,” Dr Forrest said.
“Every time we deploy we have unexpected challenges; however what makes a good team is how they respond and overcome these challenges.”