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New ideas for marine autonomy

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Whilst autonomy in cars currently gets the limelight, there is a big opportunity for the UK in marine autonomy. From remotely-piloted large container ships to tiny submarine monitoring equipment, the potential uses are as varied as they are significant.

At the Transport Systems Catapult, we’re interested in understanding the future trends affecting the transport sector. This work is undertaken in collaboration with industry, academia, and government.

In January, we collaborated with Foresight and the University of Southampton to organise two workshops to better understand the nature of this opportunity.

The workshops, in London and Southampton, were attended by representatives from large businesses, SMEs, academia, policy and even the Royal Navy. The aim was to work together to identify how to make the UK a world leader in marine autonomy.

Hopes and fears

Divided into groups, attendees were asked to identify their personal hopes and fears for marine autonomy, and associated challenges for their sector. The key issues identified were the regulation governing autonomy, challenges in scaling up the technology so it can be used in more ways and in wider markets, and data management.

Autonomy makes collecting data cheaper and easier, and this is crucial given how little we still know about the oceans. As one workshop attendee said, “[The future value in marine] will be for those who can make the best use of the vast data it collects, and will collect in the future.”

Not all challenges were technical or to do with rules and regulations. Some of the challenges were around replacing the human experience. For example, participants in London noted that a ship having a captain and a crew not only navigating the vessel, but acting as hosts to their guests, is why people value going on a cruise.

Providing enabling solutions

Participants went on to think about how different stakeholders experience these challenges. For example, a small business owner may have very different concerns about the regulatory environment to a port authority. This was a really useful exercise for identifying solutions that might be acceptable and deliverable to the wide range of stakeholders in the ocean economy. It benefited from the breadth of expertise in the room.

They then turned to creating solutions. Although they only had an afternoon, they came up with a great range of creative ideas.

It was interesting that all groups focussed on solutions to wide ranging problems, beyond just the creation of new technologies. Being a highly technical and sometimes conservative sector, marine can tend to focus a lot on technological solutions. To see solutions covering infrastructure, engagement and even skills showed the value in bringing together a wide range of stakeholders.

One great idea generated in Southampton was an ‘autonomous marine cluster.’ Government, industry, academia, and catapults could work together to develop real world and virtual knowledge clusters with a focus on marine autonomy. The water cooler effect, on water!

What happens next?

At the Transport Systems Catapult, we will use the networks these workshops have established to develop our approach to enabling marine autonomy. At the same time, the Foresight Future of the Sea project will communicate the key lessons from the workshop to policy makers.

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Find out more about Foresight’s Future of the Sea project on their project webpage.

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