Mapping the Ocean: Robot boat completes 22-day-mission without crew

The more we know about the Earth’s oceans, the more we can do to protect them. But we still know relatively little. As of June, only 19 percent of the ocean floor had been mapped out, meaning we still have a whopping 81 percent of the ocean to survey and map.

Fortunately, scientists are finding ways to speed up the mapping process through the use of robotic boats. Recently, an automated 12-meter boat successfully completed a 22-day-long mission to map an area of the seafloor in the Atlantic. Officially known as an Uncrewed Surface Vessel (USV) Maxlimer, this robotic boat was developed by SEA-KIT International in the UK and can be controlled entirely via satellite.

Already, many of the big survey companies that run traditional crewed vessels have started to invest heavily in the new, remotely operated technologies. Freight companies are also acknowledging the cost advantages that will come from running robot ships. But “over-the-horizon” control has to show it’s practical and safe if it’s to gain wide acceptance. Hence, the demonstration from Maxlimer.

The USV was despatched from Plymouth, England, in late July and sent to a location some 460km (280 miles) to the south-west. With a multi-beam echo-sounder attached to its hull, the boat mapped more than 1,000sq km of continental shelf area, down to about a kilometer in depth.

The robot boat moves slowly, at up to 4 knots (7km/h; 5mph), but its hybrid diesel-electric propulsion system is highly efficient. In fact, after completing the 22-day-journey, the Maxlimer’s tank was still around a third full.

With a boat as efficient at mapping and traversing the sea as this, it’s reasonable to expect the Ocean floor to be completely mapped by the end of the decade, which is the main target of Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project.

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