From the bottom of the ocean …

Underwater Observatories are a major field for developing new and innovative concepts in terms of sensors able to perform many different tasks (multi parameters, multi modalities, embedded intelligence …). These developments in turn are essential for correctly dimensioning the observatories from a physical point of view (size, number of sensors) as well as a virtual one (information system related) such as intelligent sensors, on board processing, data management, …

So far two test sites are in activity: the Sea Test Base (http://www.seatestbase.com) platform installed in the bay of Brest and the EMSO observatory near the Molène island (http://medon.ensta-bretagne.fr).

New equipment and new tests are needed in order to evaluate and validate the contribution of these observatories to the users at a scientific level (research institutes, companies) as well as at a more general level (end-users, citizens). Data access, data dissemination will be one of the challenges to face, as these platforms are located in difficult environments.


Example of the Medon underwater observatory (left) and of a sensor network (right).
Example of the Medon underwater observatory (left) and of a sensor network (right).

… up to the surface …

The maritime domain (made of the water column and the surface) is difficult to explore and to monitor. Increasing significantly robotic means by considering a global collaborative approach is one of the goals sought here. For the last two decades, robotic platforms have proven all their potentialities, especially in the maritime environment. A very large number of applications, ranging from military concerns to applied science and oceanography research developments, have contributed to the rise of these technologies.

Furthermore the maritime environment is multi-media (underwater, surface and aerial), and so the robotic system must take advantage of these different media. Recently, collaborative underwater drones (AUV – Autonomous Underwater Vehicles) were deployed and tested within the COMET project (http://www.poleaph-mer-bretagne.com/comet01.php). To better sense the oceanic environment, AUVs must be associated with surface (ASV – Autonomous Surface Vehicle) and aerial (UAV – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) drones. It has been shown that this coupling improved significantly the efficiency of the underwater operations and the data quality as well, especially when the AUVs are communicating between them. The capability of the robotized sailboat VAIMOS (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaimos) to autonomously acquire oceanographic data at very shallow depths is a good example of complementary with AUVs (performing not so well close to the sea surface) The cooperation and the coordination of multiple robots, operating in air, at the sea surface and underwater, are the main research axis leading to a robotic system fully adapted to the complexity of the oceanic environment.

Example of coordinated exploration with multiple AUVs (left) and VAIMOS autonomous sailing boat conducting near surface oceanographic data acquisition (right).
Example of coordinated exploration with multiple AUVs (left) and VAIMOS autonomous sailing boat conducting near surface oceanographic data acquisition (right).

… to coastal zones …

Two main challenges for underwater robotics are on-board energy and decisional autonomy. That is why ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) offer a greater availability in shallow waters, not mentioning legal problems. The ROV being linked to the surface via a cable, there is no energy problem left, but the challenge of the robot autonomy and its ability to take decisions remain. A key element in this domain will be to develop a way to come up to a decision with incomplete information. In this regard, intermediate steps such as perception, obstacle avoidance, communication management, etc., are needed. One of the missions of the ROV is to send back a 3D view of the terrain. For such a task it must have special collaborative sensors on-board for allowing image reconstruction. Local techniques do not presently provide a global view of the zones near the coast, either for estuary monitoring or harbor surveillance.

Developments are underway for assessing the concept of a submarine sentry, with enough autonomy for being eventually deployed operationally, moving then from an ROV to an AUV platform.

Example of ROV deployment (left) and harbor surveillance (right)
Example of ROV deployment (left) and harbor surveillance (right)

… and to the sky (and beyond)

Exploitation of high resolution satellite data is an essential part for many research works associated with the understanding of physical phenomena describing our environment such as the ocean and in particular the coastal zones where the phenomena are more complex due to the land/sea interactions. All weather, night and day capacity with high spatial resolution coverage is a trademark of SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radars) and provides an invaluable source of information. This technology is nowadays present in all coastal monitoring dealing with environmental concerns (for instance, CleanSeaNet services for the monitoring of marine oil pollution, within EMSA – European Maritime Safety Agency), maritime security (within GMES/COPERNICUS) and spatial oceanography.

The synergy with other data sources (other active sensors, passive sensors) complementing the processing methods and co-registering time/space access to data constitute a fundamental axis for the development of ocean observations. The availability of an extremely large amount of data, optical as well as radar, for a large scientific community will eventually increase our knowledge in these phenomena and will allow us to bring some advances in the climate change consequences. It means, of course, being able to manage these data.

Several research teams[i] are the founding partners of the GIS (Groupement d’Intérêt Scientifique) BreTel (Bretagne Télédétection; www.bretel.eu) - Scientific Cluster - Brittany Remote Sensing. The GIS was created with teams from the Brittany region, but one of its first goals is to bring the developments into a European context. Indeed the Brittany region is part of the European initiative NEREUS[ii] (Network of European Regions Using Space technologies). The VIGISAT (www.vigisat.eu) project (a radar data receiving ground station), supported and carried by the GIS BreTel, and operated by the company CLS (Collecte Localisation Satellites) has been in place since 2009. Several very large research projects took advantage of an easy access to the data and were dedicated to marine thematic (wind, wave and current measurements, pollution and ship detection, …) as well as coastal and terrestrial zones: flooding, wet zones, …) and collaborative ones within the ESA scheme, such as MCGS (Marine Collaborative Ground Segment). They were set within the former European Frame Program (FP7 - 2007-2013) and are a solid ground for the new one, “Horizon 2020” – 2014-2020).

[i] from IMT Atlantique, Ifremer, University Rennes 1, CNRS, University Rennes 2, Western Brittany University (Brest), INRIA, AGROCAMPUS-OUEST, University Nantes and MeteoFrance.

[ii]   http://www.nereus-regions.eu/

The receiving ground station (left) and a detected pollution (right).
The receiving ground station (left) and a detected pollution (right).
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