March 24, 2023

Enabling World Leaders in Marine Robotics

Caption: Students and researchers make up the Marine Robotics Centre at UCT with the SubSea Tech Catarob, UniTree Go1 and Husky at the University of Cape Town. Photo: Matthew Jordaan
The South African International Maritime Institute (SAIMI) has established itself as a great enabler in the field of marine robotics empowered research. Senior lecturer, and PHD candidate in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) faculty of engineering, Robyn Verrinder, believes that SAIMI’s investment into UCT’s Marine Robotics Centre allows South Africa to maintain a position of a world leader into research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

“South Africa is a world leader in this area, and by improving our marine robotics’ autonomy, sensing, and capabilities we are able to maintain ourselves as a world leader in this space,” Verrinder explains. “Cape Town is a gateway to Antarctica, so we have a responsibility to maintain a leadership position in this area of research and do exciting and world leading science. SAIMI has enabled a lot of this work.”

SAIMI’s involvement in this field is part of their commitment to grow the ocean economy in South Africa through maritime research, training, development, and ultimately investment into this sector.

In an office on the 7th floor of the Menzies Building at UCT in Cape Town, Professor Edward Boje, Senior Lecturer Robyn Verrinder, and Dr Paul Amayo explain the work they are able to conduct as part of the Marine Robotics Centre.

“Marine robotics is not primarily robots like you would see in movies or in the car manufacturing sector. Quite a lot of the work that is done in marine robotics is around sensing and drawing conclusions from that sensing,” remarks Professor Boje. “A lot of this work is being done in the Southern Ocean because a lot of our weather is determined by what is happening there.”

While South Africa is privileged in having one of the most up to date research vessels that can enter this region, the SA Agulhas II, robotics enables research at a much higher scale. “The SA Agulhas II costs around a third of a million rand per day to operate in only one place, whereas marine robotics have a much lower cost and we are able to get a wide scale of insight of what is going on in that region that you would not normally see from a single point of observation,” according to Boje.

Verrinder adds that “marine robotics gives us access to spaces we cannot get to under normal conditions with standard systems. Robots have completely revolutionised oceanography, they have allowed us to research different parts of the ocean that we have not historically had access to. It is very exciting to make these observations.”

Dr Paul Amayo, who specialises in robotic perception, added to this idea. “It is exciting to see robots actually at work and helping to create a system a little bit greater than what humans can normally do. We are working to create a system to help us to understand things better and make the job and life easier for us.” Dr Amayo feels that the benefit of field robots is that it is not just some abstract theoretical concept, but you can actually see what is happening, take measurements, and use them to make a real impact in the scientific field. Some of the real impact of these projects is being seen by masters and PHD students in the marine robotics centre who are currently engaged in research into 12 projects which span various ocean industries.

Robyn Verrinder has been involved in a ground-breaking project that has never been done before. In the quest to better understand the dynamics of “pancake ice” which exists in the region between the consolidated ice of Antarctica and the rough open ocean. “This region of flux where ice is forming, but constantly being agitated by waves and wind creates very unusual and different ice formations,” according to Verrinder.

Verrinder goes on to explain the importance of the research into ice in this region; “It is very important to know how long ice can stay frozen and how quickly it melts in this region. Understanding the interface between the open ocean and the fused ice helps us to feed information into the earth’s system models which will give us a better prediction of the ice melting in summer and forming in winter.”

This region’s ice has a large influence on the global climate and because it is difficult to get to it means that there is limited data on a lot of what influences the climactic functions of this region. Through marine robotics Verrinder has been able to put sensors on the ice to take measurements of the environmental variables as well as the ices’ response to the waves in the Southern Ocean.

“On our most recent mission we were able to deploy six instruments in the field, have a polar cyclone move through the region, and then be able to track and recover 4 of the instruments after 5 days of collecting data,” Verrinder explains.

“This has never been done before,” adds Professor Boje, “to have such precise and high resolution data that has been recovered to tell us what is going on in that region.”

Closer to home, Dr Paul Amayo is engaged in a project involving harbour mapping and localisation. Having been involved in robotics since his undergraduate degree, Dr Amayo has been involved in developing perception in robotics. “It is not just perceiving,” Dr Amayo elaborates, “but seeing how a robot can navigate within an environment and maintain an internal and external representation of the environment for humans to utilise too.”

His research into harbour mapping involves taking measurements using an autonomous unmanned surface vessel that creates coherence and a single unified representation of the data captured.
This project involves various land and water-based robots including a new unmanned surface vessel created by SubSea Tech which is equipped with various sensors and devices to allow it to autonomously survey areas to collect data for harbour mapping. “This data can then be presented in a way that is useful to both humans and the robot itself. If a robot is moving around Cape Town harbour, it can create a reconstruction that could act as an inspection of the harbour. This will enable harbour inspections to happen at a much higher frequency than they currently do.”

Terrance Adivhaho Nekhwalivhe, 24 from Limpopo, is a masters student who is directly benefitting from the SAIMI funding. He explains that “in all honesty, to study a masters degree in robotics of mechatronics you need an incredibly high GPA to find people willing to sponsor your project. While I wasn’t able to get outside sponsorship, SAIMI’s funding has afforded me this opportunity to do my masters degree regardless.”

The opportunity he has been given is life-changing. He is currently working on one of two large scale marine robotics centre projects with one of South Africa’s largest industrial companies. The project involves upgrading the efficiency and accuracy of a system used in marine mining activities. Previously the system in place for moving a vessel engaged in mining every ten minutes is taking up 20% of the mining time, and with Nekhwalivhe’s research and interventions he is hoping for an improvement of the speeds and accuracy of the movements which will be pivotal in improving efficiency and the environmental impact of the mining system.

“Funding has made a huge difference – there are 10 students that would be struggling for funding, working part-time, and unable to get into the scientific work,” Professor Boje explains. “The reality is that universities struggle with funding, so the funding that is invested by SAIMI means that universities are able to offer students bursaries at the exact time they are interested in robotics.”

Universities require long-term investments in order to allow students to get going in their research and to allow universities to remain competitive in the world. Professor Boje believes “SAIMI are forward thinking in their approach as the funding draws interest into the field of marine robotics and ultimately produces results.”

Apart from wonder and curiosity driving his scientific career, Professor Boje’s passion comes from the way young students’ lives are being impacted by the research they are able to be involved in. “Seeing young people come in as masters students, but going out with a whole lot of new skills excites me,” says Boje, “not just the skills from the marine robotic project they were involved in, but also going out with a much more mature way about thinking about and solving problems.”

The benefits of the SAIMI funding of the Marine Robotics Centre stretches much further than the walls of the engineering department of UCT, but it has enabled a cross-collaboration between several different researchers in the department, faculties, and even universities. UCT were recently involved in collaboration with Nelson Mandela University’s (NMU) Marine Robotics Centre. NMU built an unmanned surface vessel and the two universities have been able to collaborate to improve the ocean-going capabilities of that vessel so that it can be deployed in larger seas than just the coastal regions it was designed for.

Professor Boje explains it is new impossible to ascertain how many academics’ lives are impacted by the funding that SAIMI has put into the Marine Robotics Centre because it has such a far and wide interdepartmental reach. But what is certain is that SAIMI is affording South African academics to be world leaders in oceanographic research.

About the author

Issued by SAIMI


More Articles

July 28, 2023

South African International Maritime Institute (SAIMI) hosted a successful Maritime Winter School Awareness Programme

South Africa has been at the center of a surge in interest in respect of sea-going careers. The South African International Maritime Institute (SAIMI) in line with its mandate and role as advocate and coordinator of skills development in the maritime sector has initiated a new pilot programme. This is an ongoing exploration at testing the waters in ensuring that the South African system is strengthened and therefore ready to be able to respond to these opportunities that are coming into the Country.