Springer set for polluted waterways

Work has begun in the UK to build ‘Springer’, an unmanned surface vehicle (USV) that will operate in shallow water to track water pollution and carry out environmental surveys.

Funded primarily by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), this vehicle will be built at the University of Plymouth by a multidisciplinary team including engineering and artificial intelligence experts.

Pollutants that affect inland and coastal waters include organic carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, which reduce water quality and disturb the natural balance of organisms. They are deposited in waterways via sewage discharges and run-off from agricultural land.

Conventional methods of tracking these pollutants to their source such as boat sampling and airborne sensing are said to be expensive and limited in effectiveness because they can not be used easily in shallow water. These systems also have to be manned by operators, making them more expensive to run than a remote controlled device.

According to the EPSRC, Springer will enable comprehensive surveys to be undertaken more economically than is currently possible. About 3m long, 1.5m wide and with a twin hull, the vehicle will operate in water 1m to 60m deep.

Designed to work autonomously or under remote manual control, the electrically powered Springer will use a wireless link to communicate with its operator and transmit collected data.

The project aims to stimulate the growth of UK expertise in USV technology, which is attracting increasing interest worldwide. A key focus will be the development of a navigation, guidance and control system that will allow Springer to switch between automatic and manual control modes.

“We aim to produce full-scale trials data of interest to environmental and marine agencies, and to industry,” said Professor Bob Sutton who is leading the initiative. “The information generated by vehicles like Springer could make a major contribution to the effective cleaning up of our waterways.”