Unmanned vessels and robots prove useful at sea during quiet corona times | Flanders Marine Institute

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Unmanned vessels and robots prove useful at sea during quiet corona times

Ostend (2020.07.02) – During the corona crisis, research vessels lay unemployed at the quay. The Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) used this as an opportunity to map changes in the underwater sound scape of our North Sea, making use of a silent robot. Overall, unmanned vessels are doing very well in various other areas, as confirmed by the Flemish’ agency for Maritime and Coastal Services and the Belgian Federal Public Service Mobility and Transport. Both government services play a key role in facilitating innovative tests with unmanned vessels in the Belgian part of the North Sea.

Press release by: Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ), agency for Maritime and Coastal Services (MDK), and FPS Mobility and Transport

The past few months we have seen a drop in shipping intensity of 15% in the North Sea. Also, research vessels had to remain at the quay temporarily. This prompted the accelerated deployment of unmanned vessels, such as the VLIZ USV robot Adhemar. This unmanned surface vessel carried out measurements of the underwater noise in the turbid and shallow coastal waters of Ostend-Bredene. These measurements, made in collaboration with the agency for Maritime and Coastal Services (MDK) and FPS Mobility and Transport, allow to record a period with reduced human activities, to be compared with a more normalized sound scape in the future.

In water, sound is carried more than 4 times further than in the air. That is precisely why many marine animals use sound to communicate, determine their position and search for prey. The ambient sound or ‘soundscape’ in our North Sea is not only determined by natural sound sources (waves, rain, geological events, sounds by sea animals, etc.) but also by human activities (shipping, pile driving, etc.). Marine animals can be affected by this extra underwater noise. This can range from masking natural ambient noise, to disturbance of the behavior of all kinds of sea animals, to hearing damage.

The measurement and analysis of underwater sounds, both originating from marine animals and the environment, is made with so-called Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM). VLIZ applied this efficient, non-invasive and flexible method during several missions in April and May 2020 from its USV Adhemar. This USV is propelled by the waves and produces almost no underwater noise by itself. The aim of this study was to investigate whether a different underwater soundscape can be observed as a result of the reduced shipping. Furthermore, it was a unique opportunity to record sounds (e.g. from fish and invertebrates) that are masked normally by antropogenic activities. The results are currently being processed and are expected by autumn 2020. Additional measurements under the LifeWatch observation program are planned in the long term.

Deploying unmanned vessels such as USV Adhemar in a busy section of the North Sea is not an  easy task. The authorities responsible for the safety and regulation of shipping – the Flemish agency for Maritime and Coastal Services (MDK) and the Federal Public Service for Mobility and Transport – therefore play a key role in facilitating successful missions with unmanned vessels.

The Maritime Rescue and Coordination Center (MRCC) in Ostend supplies the necessary permits in which the conditions are included. After all, clear rules and good coordination and cooperation between the various parties ensure that safety takes precedence. For example, unmanned cruises can only be carried out in daylight and under conditions of a good visibility. Moreover, these trips must not hinder the shipping traffic. In an emergency, the MRCC in Ostend and the traffic control center in Zeebrugge must be notified immediately so that other road users can be informed quickly.

At the international level, the FPS Mobility and Transport contributes to the development of a regulatory framework for autonomous shipping by actively participating in the ongoing discussions within the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and working groups at European level. In addition, the FPS supports the further development of autonomous navigation and distance navigation. Tests with autonomous vessels in Belgian waters are important to assess the maturity of the technologies involved. At the same time, safety, environmental protection and shipping security must be guaranteed at all times. To this end, DG Shipping has developed a procedure for autonomous shipping tests, in which risk analyses, its passage plan and the ship documentation are examined. Applications for authorizations to conduct tests must be submitted to MASS@mobilit.fgov.be. More information: https://mobilit.belgium.be/en/shipping/semi_autonomous_shipping.


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