Animal attraction

Unmanned underwater vehicles could eventually turn on their axis like a shark or crawl along the seabed like an octopus


Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) could eventually turn on their axis like a shark or crawl along the seabed like an octopus — that is, if a UK research programme is successful.

An engineering team led by Gwyn Griffiths of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton (NOCS) will spend the next three years researching ways of improving the agility and manoeuvrability of UUVs by taking inspiration from marine animals.

The EPSRC-funded project, called Nature in Engineering for Monitoring the Oceans, could lead to UUVs that are capable of travelling and performing tasks at sea depths beyond 3,000m, which is the limit for current autonomous underwater vehicles.

‘We want to go as deep as the oceans go — so Mariana Trench, which is about 11,000m deep,’ said one of the project researchers, Stephen Boyd, a lecturer in ship science at the University of Southampton.

The engineering researchers will liaise with biologists to determine how marine animals move in their fluid environment at various depths. The team will model its animal-inspired UUV design ideas in computational fluid dynamics software.

Fellow researcher James Blake, also a lecturer in ship science at Southampton, said that, within three years, the group hopes to develop a prototype of a soft-bodied UUV subsystem with near-neutral buoyancy from the surface to 6,000m. The prototype will be evaluated at a pressure test facility at the NOCS to 60MPa using a precision weighing machine.

The team believes that design-enhanced UUVs could be used to assess the environmental impact of drilling for oil and gas in an area of the ocean floor. Other vehicles could forecast seismic behaviour and give early warnings of tsunamis. ‘The scope of these unmanned underwater vehicles is totally open to the imagination,’ said Boyd.

The research collaboration also includes contributions from Alan Murphy of Newcastle University and Subsea7, an offshore energy industry contractor based in Aberdeen.

Siobhan Wagner