Robots to the rescue: Exploring the Oslo Fjord with autonomous vehicles

The picture shows the Oceanlab building. It has dark wooden exterior walls, and the tall windows are reflecting the skies.

Oceanlab is made up of researchers from around the world with backgrounds in marine robotics, machine learning, electrical engineering, and operations research. They were drawn to Norway because of the country’s rich relationship with the sea and a desire to explore. “We exist on top of the water but what lies underneath is mostly unknown,” Professor Alex Alcocer tells us.

Unfortunately, according to Alcocer, the little we do know about the Oslo Fjord's depths is not pretty. Decades of overfishing, water treatment releases, and farming runoff has filled the Oslo Fjord with contaminants and killed off most of the fish and plant life. Understanding the fjord is the first step to restoring it and preventing further damage but this is labour intensive and expensive.

The researchers at Oceanlab have envisioned a clever solution to this problem: a fleet of autonomous, sensor-carrying robots swimming around the fjord and sending back data 24/7 for researchers back at their base to analyse.

“There is a knowledge gap that prevents technological advancement for ocean research, data collection, and modelling,” says professor Vahid Hassani. “Here at Oceanlab, we are determined to move towards filling that knowledge gap and improving everyone’s understanding of the ocean.”

A lab on the fjord

Oceanlab moved into its new space in the Filipstadkaia district of Oslo less than a year ago. The transition was exciting but full of challenges. “We had to redesign the building for our purposes. That included tearing out some walls to make the space we needed to do our work”, explains Andreas Graf, the senior engineer who oversees all innovation activities in the lab. “In the beginning, we did not even have furniture. Starting work here required a lot of improvisation.”

Since then, the students and staff at Oceanlab have transformed the space into a multilevel dynamic research environment complete with several water tanks to test their robots, the biggest of which holds more than 2,000 litres. These tanks let the researchers test the equipment in controlled environments and mean that research can continue through the winter when the fjord generally freezes over.

In the warmer months, Oceanlab's proximity to the fjord means the researchers can walk just outside and take the robots for a test drive. This is great for speedy prototyping development and lets the students get their feet wet with applied robotics. Already, dozens of OsloMet students - mostly master’s level) - have started projects at Oceanlab.

Special challenges

Building robots for dry land is hard enough but designing them for underwater exploration comes with additional challenges. Not only do they have to deal with pressure and corrosive saltwater; as Alcocer points out, “there’s also no WiFi or GPS underwater”. Because of this, the robots need to be capable of operating and collecting data autonomously.

They also need batteries that can power the robots through their long journeys. Overcoming these challenges are a key part of creating a network of underwater drones that can continuously monitor the fjord.

The researchers have already made significant progress in their short time at the new lab. Their first prototype is a small affordable platform with sensors to measure things like temperature, salt concentration, dissolved oxygen, and light intensity. They are still working on controlling buoyancy and perfecting the housing, but the team expects to give the robot its first test drive in the fjord within the next few weeks.

The ultimate goal is to have hundreds of autonomous robots across the fjord that send constant updates about environmental health without the need to have people in the field. To do this, Oceanlab is collaborating with engineers and AI students, start-ups, and established maritime companies.

More than a lab

Oceanlab's new facility holds much more than just a research and development facility. The entire third floor is dedicated to a coworking area where businesses, individuals, and other researchers can rent desks and work together to understand the fjord. "Bridging gaps and bringing the right minds together is crucial in succeeding in our endeavours and we believe our concept of integrating research, innovation and education is well suited for this,” says Graf.

Students will also be able to use this space if they choose to transition their research into start-up businesses. This fits well with the government’s Norwegian Ocean Strategy which emphasises research and innovation as prerequisites for realising sustainable development in the ocean.  Hassani sums up their purpose as "Here at Oceanlab we are enabling technologies that will help us to reach Norway and the UN's sustainable development goals.”

Making the ocean accessible

The first floor of Oceanlab houses a Makerspace as well, as an area for public outreach and education. Here, the researchers and students will share the data they've collected with the public and inspire Oslo residents to engage with the fjord that plays a major role in the lives of Oslo’s inhabitants.

Researcher Evin Güler is especially interested in bringing this knowledge to high school students. “Making the ocean accessible to children and young people is extremely important,” Güler tells us. “Ocean literacy is something we all need to invest in.”

Oceanlab is built on a foundation of research, innovation, education, and dissemination. “Norway’s maritime history and fjords forged the national identity of Norwegians for centuries.” Hassani notes, “The ocean is a source of food, energy, water, and jobs, even for landlocked countries."

Oceanlab is the first step toward helping marine biologists, oceanographers, policymakers, and – above all - the general public acquire first-hand knowledge about the health of the ocean. In this way, the new facility represents major progress toward the restoration of Oslo Fjord and pursuit of sustainable growth.

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Published: 11/03/2022
Last updated: 17/03/2022
Text: Matthew Davidson