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Robotic subsea exploration technologies

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ROBUST (Robotic subsea exploration technologies)

Reporting period: 2017-06-01 to 2018-11-30

There is a need to develop an autonomous, reliable, cost effective technology to map vast terrains, in terms of raw material contents which will aid in reducing the cost of mineral exploration, currently performed by ROVs and dedicated SSVs and crew. Furthermore there is a need to identify, in an efficient and non-intrusive manner, the most rich mineral sites. This technology will aid the seabed mining industry, reduce the cost of exploration and especially the detailed identification of the raw materials contained in a mining sites and enable targeted mining only of the richest resources existing. The ROBUST proposal aims to tackle the aforementioned issue by developing sea bed in situ material identification through the fusion of two technologies, namely laser-based in-situ element-analysing capability merged with underwater AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) technologies for sea bed 3D mapping.
In terms of project implementation, ROBUST has 10 work packages. Details are given on the work plan section of the project website:

The highlights of what has been achieved so far are:
• Identifying areas of interest from existing bathymetric acoustic maps. GEOMAR is drawing on its experience of bathymetric mapping and nodule imaging to develop algorithms for identifying areas of interest for Mn-nodule occurrence and distinguishing nodules from other detritus, especially marine organisms.
• Screenplay for ROBUST deployment. A 2-stage survey has been agreed upon. First-stage at high altitude over a 2Km square with acoustic camera to select areas of interest and for the second stage at low amplitude with optical camera to identify Mn-nodules.
• LIBS trials in water. A pressure chamber for the LIBS has been built for trials in water at pressure of 650 bar. Pressure test on the LIBS system with its pressure housing have been carried out successfully within the pressure chamber at 600bar.
• AUV and manipulator design. The overall design of the AUV and manipulator is achieved. The skeleton of the platform has been conceived with a modular approach, by composition of 4 basic robotic units: 3 torpedo-shaped AUVs and a 6 degrees of freedom manipulator. Initial trials of the AUV with the manipulator have been undertaken successfully in a tank.
• Software architecture design. Automated control of the system components is an extremely complex task because of the complexity of the AUV operation. The general architecture of ROBUST Underwater Vehicle Manipulator System has been developed and integrated into the AUV manipulator functionality.
• LIBS system integration with the ROV has been carried out successfully.
• LIBS systems with its housing is currently undergoing tests at 6000m sea depth using GEOMAR kiel 6000 ROV, ensuring operability of the LIBS system at 6000m water depth sea trials.
• The AUV is also being prepared for tests at 200-300m water depth sea trials.
ROBUST project aims to progress beyond the state of art in several underwater technologies to achieve rapid and cost effective seabed mining exploration. The innovation potential of the project is:
• High resolution mapping of seabed mining targets using various techniques (acoustic, laser scanners, etc.) and real time detection of nodules (machine learning algorithms).
• AUV control architecture for advanced AUV capabilities in terms of manoeuvring, hovering and position keeping in rough terrains.
• AUV and manipulator synergy for LIBS scanning.
• Lasers for LIBS optimised based on the experience for prototype lasers for space applications to subsea use and for the quantitative analysis of subsea minerals.
• LIBS module for operation in 6000m and in harsh environments.
The expected results are:
1. Complete ROBUST system, designed, manufactured and tested at 200-300 m in coastal waters.
2. LIBS system for nodule analysis which will be deployed at 6000 m from an ROV as part of normal GEOMAR operations.
3. AUV characterized by its modular design. This will provide a flexible tool for subsea surveys.
4. Manipulator designed for seamless operation with a hovering AUV and could be used with a variety of tools.
5. Software algorithms for automatic identification of areas of interest from acoustic maps. Specific acoustic image processing algorithms are being developed for identifying areas of the seafloor when Mn-nodules might occur, using databases of existing images. This will contribute to the general subsea mapping.
6. Software algorithms for automatic Mn-nodules recognition. Mn-nodules must be distinguished from other detritus on the seafloor and in particular from marine organisms.
7. Automated ROBUST deployment procedure. The unique characteristic of ROBUST is its complete autonomous deployment, without any manual intervention during the surveying and analysis operations.

In terms of expected impacts, most of onshore mining sites have been explored and existing quantities of onshore exploitable raw materials estimated. This can produce uncertainties in raw material market and further down the value chain to the industries dependent on raw material sustainable supply. In addition, main suppliers of certain raw materials are quite limited which can lead to market prices manipulation and material shortage if exports are cut back. This fact can create serious disruptions not only in terms of productivity and cost rising of all European industrial products but also in terms of the well being of the European citizens. This is because the uses of raw materials in medical sciences and in renewable energy products are numerous. Therefore, seabed mining offers an opportunity to the European Industry to increase times fold the existing reserves of available raw materials.

In this respect, ROBUST technologies fit perfectly to the objectives of the EIP action to call for new exploration technologies and to serve as tools to the geological surveys industry. The technologies proposed can identify element content, 3D seabed map, and measure the volume of deposits, covering large areas effectively and this will contribute to new geo-models of mineral deposits.
Also, the costs of seabed mining exploration will be significantly reduced. ROBUST project aims to incorporate the above technologies in an AUV which can cover large areas, perform the tasks in harsh environments and maximum operational depths (6000m). This exploration scheme will limit the use of ROV and accompanying SSV, which in turn can lead to significant cost reductions.
Futhermore, the use of AUV laser based technology in the interrogation and mapping process is non-intrusive providing a more environmentally friendly with minimal disturbance to the natural habitats and existing ecosystems.
AUV pool trials
Photo of Mn-nodules by GEOMAR