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Robotic subsea exploration technologies

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - ROBUST (Robotic subsea exploration technologies)

Reporting period: 2018-12-01 to 2020-01-31

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.

ROBUST project 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: http://eu-robust.eu/

The highlights of what has been achieved so far are:

• A complete ROBUST system - achieved;
1. ROV with LIBS system trials at sea depth above 4000m.
2. AUV and demo LIBS head trials at 200-300m sea depth.
Exploitation: ROBUST systems available for nodules identification at sea depths up to 6000m for the real LIBS with an ROV and 200 - 300m with the AUV fitted with a demo LIBS.

• LIBS system for nodule analysis - achieved;
1. LIBS system designed and manufactured for 6000m/600bar.
2. LIBS system with ROV trials at above 4000m sea depth.
3. Detection of nodule samples in 600bar pressure chamber. LIBS system operational at above 4000m sea depth.
4. Identification of nodule samples during turbidity tests in open sea trials.
Exploitation: LIBS system available for detection of nodule samples and nodule analysis at maximum 6000m/600bar operational environment.

• AUV - achieved;
1. AUV designed and manufactured for 200 - 300m sea depth.
2. AUV and demo LIBS trials at 200-300m.
3. AUV fitted with laser scanners, camera systems, multibeam echo sounders, and a demo LIBS head.
Exploitation: ROBUST AUV system available for 200 - 300m sea depth nodule identification with the installed trained laser scanners and camera systems.

• LIBS manipulator - achieved;
1. UMA manipulator designed and manufactured to fit with the 3-AUVs open framework.
2. Demo LIBS system integrated with the UMA manipulator.
3. Successful trials of the UMA LIBS manipulator and the demo LIBS system with the AUV in real life environment.
Exploitation: UMA LIBS manipulator integrated with AUV is available for carrying portable LIBS systems.

• Software algorithms for automatic identification of areas of interest from acoustic maps and systems controls synchronization- achieved;
1. Development of software algorithms for the control of AUV ROBUST systems used for navigation, landing, scanning and mapping areas of interest during sea trials.
2. Successful trials of the controls to validate its functionalities, High resolution 3D image of targeted materials including nodule samples, and identification of nodules.
Exploitation: Software algorithms available to control and synchronise systems for nodules exploration.

• Automated ROBUST deployment - achieved;
1. Development of automated functionalities for the AUV mission.
2. Successful demonstration during project large scale trials mapping operation.
Exploitation: Autonomous operation of ROBUST systems available for nodules exploration.

Dissemination: For the duration of the project, 7 clients have registered interest in exploiting ROBUST systems potentials.
ROBUST project progresses beyond the state of art in several underwater technologies to achieve rapid and cost effective seabed mining exploration. The innovation potentials of the project are:
• 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 landing position keeping during nodule identification mission.
• 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. This is a first in subsea LIBS applications in nodules identification.
• LIBS module for operation in 6000m and in harsh environments.

The final results are:
1. Complete ROBUST system, designed, manufactured and tested at 200-300m in coastal waters.
2. LIBS system for nodule analysis deployed at above 4000m and designed for 6000m sea depth from an ROV as part of normal GEOMAR operations.
3. AUV characterized by its modular design, providing a flexible tool for subsea surveys.
4. Manipulator designed for seamless operation with the AUV and could be used with a variety of tools.
5. Software algorithms for automatic identification of areas of interest from acoustic maps, and Mn-nodules recognition.
6. Automated ROBUST deployment without any manual intervention during the surveying and analysis operations.
7. Software algorithms for ROBUST systems controls and synchronization towards successful deployment mission.

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 existing reserves of available raw materials.

In this respect, ROBUST project fits 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 merges the technologies which can cover large areas, perform the tasks in harsh environments and maximum operational depths (6000m) for the LIBS with ROV and 200 - 300m for the AUV. The in-situ capabilities of the LIBS system in identifying nodules will reduce the cost to the use of ROV and accompanying SSV.
Furthermore, 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.
Open water trials
Open water trials
AUV pool trials
Photo of Mn-nodules by GEOMAR