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Autonomous swarms are the key to effective marine protection

The UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon in June was a strange contradiction.

On one hand a unanimous recognition of threats facing our oceans, the importance of protecting marine biodiversity, and an unprecedented commitment to take action.

On the other hand, an almost complete lack of solutions.

If the world is to meet the United Nations' commitment to fully protect 30 percent of the earth’s oceans by the year 2030 then we need urgent investment and scalable solutions. Right now, we have neither.

Government funding is fragmented and focused on small local projects, which while great do not move the bar fast enough nor far enough.

So what role can technology play in accelerating the 30by30 commitment?

Currently, marine protection is provided by traditional crewed vessels - from diesel-powered offshore patrol vessels, coast guard cutters, and even warships. But these solutions are costly to build and operate and lack scalability. Satellite technology can enhance decision making but it lacks both a deterrence and enforceability factor.

Speaking with stakeholders across the sectors; the answer is swarms of autonomous solutions.

For near-shore or coastal protection, UAVs or aerial drones provide a robust solution but are limited by endurance, operational weather conditions, and operational regulations. For that reason, we see swarms of USV surface vessels as a likely and effective solution.

Distributed offshore patrols

Swarms of USVs enable distributed maritime operations; the strategic positioning of vessels to patrol maritime borders around an MPA or EEZ. With support from satellite data, they can plot a course to pre-set areas, or to respond to capture evidence of an approaching incursion. While satellites remain anonymous - USVs are a physical presence on the ocean, equipped with high-resolution cameras to record video evidence of illegal activity and loud hailers and acoustic deterrents to ward away illegal operations.

As a scalable solution you can position vessels to be within an optimum travel distance of any location - say 10 hours; with the ability to remain at sea for 40-60 days before refueling and servicing.

Whilst many MPA operators are looking for low-cost USV solutions to control costs of MPA enforcement cheaper vessels have limited capabilities to capture high-quality video for evidence from afar, satellite communications solutions for the transfer of data, and sufficient redundancy to provide reliability and robustness offshore. Additionally, low-cost USV solutions are typically unable to deploy larger more power-hungry sensors and thereby offer limited ability to capture other import environmental data that could offer additional value-add to MPA design and monitoring.

So what is the solution to ensure the low cost and affordability of USV operations?

Considering that operating costs can account for over a third of the OPEX costs of long-endurance USV operations one solution is the deployment of swarms that are controlled by few operators

Swarms deliver more value for a lower cost

  • Reduces the cost of operation of multiple vessels through a swarm Remote Operation Centre - enabling more assets in the water meaning better surveillance coverage and data collection

  • Distributed swarm operations mean that data collected is less dispersed. Data from individual USVs can be shared with other USVs to provide a more accurate/holistic real-time data set.

  • Data from vessels within the swarms can be used to augment other vessels' data to ensure more informed operational decisions.

Multi-stakeholder deployments

Greater collaboration and integration of systems, processes, and data are critical to effective conservation.

Swarms enable this multi-stakeholder capability by combining the role of the coast guard, fisheries protection, and environmental data and research. The vessels onboard Ai processing enables near real-time relay of data to the operation centre, with data segmented and protected for each stakeholder, ensuring data privacy and primacy.

Net positive contributor to the economy

It’s a well-established economic principle that investment in conservation and restoration is a net contributor to local and national economies.

  • Supports eco-tourism and ocean health through biodiversity protection, detection of ghost nets, ocean plastic, sargassum, and other operational tasks

  • Used to support sustainable local fishing but collecting biodiversity data and using sensors to identify mature fishing stock

  • Opens new financial models for natural asset capital through monitoring of biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and regeneration

  • Can support the funding of local education and environmental projects


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