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Introducing ‘Oceanus’ - the world’s first long-range autonomous research vessel

20 October 2022

An artist's impression of the Oceanus at sea

By Professor Icarus Allen – Chief Executive Plymouth Marine Laboratory 

Earlier in the year, Plymouth Marine Laboratory announced its plans for the world’s first long-range autonomous research vessel – the ‘Oceanus’. 

The concept of a long-range autonomous ship is something Plymouth Marine Laboratory has been working on for some years now, in order to revolutionise the way we deliver marine science through the use of advanced technologies.  

Traditional research vessels are expensive to build and operate. Research trips need to be crewed and can often be logistically challenging. And, of course, they leave an environmental footprint.  

Plymouth Marine Laboratory already has long-standing experience in more sustainable areas of oceanographic research, including autonomous data collection; through our moored data buoys and smaller autonomous devices like our Autonaut and EcoSubs, as part of Smart Sound Plymouth. And this experience has built a strong foundation and vision for what we want to achieve next. 

Whilst we have seen the development of autonomy and AI systems which allow ships to operate and navigate independently - as demonstrated recently by the successful transatlantic crossing of the Mayflower 400 autonomous ship - many existing smaller autonomous research vessels and devices are restricted in their range. 

mayflower.jpgAbove: The Mayflower 400 Autonomous ship, designed by M Subs Ltd (Copyright @AI_Mayflower Twitter

In the spirit of Plymouth, Britain's Ocean City - renowned as an international centre for marine research and exploration – we need to develop a vessel which can carry out transatlantic research expeditions in a radically more sustainable way, increasing the breadth and scope of the work we are able to undertake.  

And so, the concept of Oceanus was born. 

The name for our own research vessel, ‘Oceanus’, was inspired by the name of the first child to be born on the original ‘Mayflower’ back in 1620. The historic English ship transported a group of families - known today as the Pilgrims - in a grueling 10-week transatlantic journey to the ‘New World’: from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Massachusetts.  

Brett Phaneuf, Chief Executive of M SUBS Ltd - who developed and built the Mayflower 400 Autonomous Ship, and who we have partnered with to design Oceanus - coined the name. 

‘Oceanus’, the name is therefore both a nod to the pioneering spirit of Plymouth: Britain’s Ocean City, and to signify a new era for net zero oceanography. 

Through collaboration with our partners at M Subs Ltd, we can build upon learnings from the Mayflower 400 autonomous ship, repurposed in the pursuit of marine research. 

Oceanus - which will span a remarkable 24 metres - has been designed as a fully-uncrewed, self-righting, light-weight, mono-hulled autonomous vessel - capable of carrying an array of monitoring sensors to collect data for research into critical areas such as climate change, biodiversity, fisheries and biogeochemistry. 

Above: Technical drawing of the Oceanus. Click here to download the technical drawings and specification of the vessel (PDF 2.6MB)

It has been designed to maximise all possible space on the 24 metre vessel, so that it can carry a huge range of advanced sensors and instruments, thereby providing us with an unprecedented level of data and information. This will also enable the validation of data received from satellites.  

Many are curious as to how it navigates itself. Well, after embarking on a journey, the ship’s onboard computer system will effectively take over as captain. Packed with sensors, radars and cameras - which will allow it to independently monitor and navigate its environment. That data, combined with additional inputs such as weather forecasting, nautical charts and GPS will allow it to make smart decisions - such as bypassing other vessels and hazards, and rerouting to avoid dangerous weather. 

The more we can measure, the more we can understand. Ultimately, Oceanus will greatly improve our fundamental understanding of things like climate change and carbon effects on the ocean, biodiversity, gasses, biogeochemical cycles and a range of other key marine research areas.   

A statistic I find quite shocking is that, to date, humans have explored less than 5% of the world’s oceans.  

And yet, the ocean does so much for us. It’s absorbed at least 25% of carbon emissions that we have have emitted. It also absorbs over 90% of the excess heat resulting from greenhouse gases... and, most importantly we humans, get between 50% and 80% of the oxygen we breathe from the ocean. 

It is vital now, more than ever, to improve our understanding of the ocean and the changes taking place within it - the ocean is facing huge challenges and it’s vital we have as much evidence as possible to support decisions on how to protect and manage it sustainably.   

Oceanus has been initially supported by seed funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). However, we are currently exploring opportunities for further support and funding in order to progress to the build phase, which would take around two years to complete. 

If you are interested in supporting the build phase of Oceanus, please leave your details with Fundraising Officer James Lord, who will gladly get in touch.