DEFRA backs robotic seagrass monitoring project

A new project in south west England will combine uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) and data analytics to monitor the health of seagrass meadows.


Known as SONARS (Seagrass Observation using Novel Acoustic Remote Sensing), the endeavour will be led by HydroSurv, an Exeter-based firm that develops and operates electrified and hybrid USVs. According to HydroSurv, the project will pair its USV platforms with an ‘automated data processing toolchain’, analysing seagrass health at three designated sites on the south west coast of England.

The project, which is backed by Innovate UK and DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), will see HydroSurv work with Coastal Marine Applied Research (CMAR) from Plymouth University, the Ocean Conservation Trust, Falmouth Harbour and the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Long-term, the partners plan to commercialise the technology for environmental monitoring.

“Working with partners and end-users, our focus has shifted from technology development towards the scale pilot of a whole-system solution,” said David Hull, HydroSurv CEO. “The ability to demonstrate to service operator customers and channel partners that the solution has been extensively tested with engagement from survey commissioners, not only on small field trials, but also on multiple sites and seasonal resurveys, will build confidence in the solution.

“We’ve received a lot of interest from survey contractors who are interested in delivering these services, amongst others in environmental monitoring. Working together with them, I expect we could take this solution to market within the next 12 months across the UK and further afield in Europe.”

HydroSurv started to develop the non-invasive solution, with Innovate UK support, in early 2022 in collaboration with Plymouth University and Valeport. This previous work focused on refining acoustic ground discrimination techniques from the robotic vessel platforms and was successfully demonstrated in live trials over the past two years.

Building on this work, SONARS will now run over spring and summer 2024. The project will conduct baseline and seasonal re-survey work, delivering around 40 days of on-water testing and data, showing seasonal variation over the project’s nine-month duration.

“It is great to see how our early-stage academic collaboration with HydroSurv is developing into a ready for market solution,” said Timothy Scott, Associate Professor in Ocean Exploration at Plymouth University.

“HydroSurv has leveraged our expertise in hydrographic survey and data analytics to facilitate a streamlined end-to-end solution for seagrass monitoring.”