Here, researchers double check a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) from NTNU's AUR Lab before the robot is sent out into the Arctic polar night. Photo: Geir Johnsen, NTNU / UNIS

Teaching robots to cooperate underwater

The launch of a new research centre for robotics will provide increased knowledge about the sea with the help of underwater drones and robots. This could impact Norway’s international role as a major power at sea, says centre director.

Professor Asgeir J. Sørensen will lead the new NTNU-VISTA Centre for autonomous operations subsea.

“Our goal is to develop technology that in the short term can reduce the environmental footprint of industry at sea while reducing environmental risk. In the longer term, the technology could become part of a subsea infrastructure of great importance for monitoring and understanding the biology, chemistry, physics and dynamics in the ocean and on the seabed,” says Sørensen.

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and Equinor are supporting NTNU with a grant of NOK 25 million for the new research centre. The Departments of Marine Technology and Engineering Cybernetics are receiving the research funding of NOK 5 million a year for five years. NTNU is contributing additional financing.

Aiming to be part of the Ocean Space Centre

The centre will benefit from infrastructure that has already been established in the port of Trondheim and hopes to become part of the infrastructure of the anticipated Ocean Space Centre. Sørensen believes that the new centre can have an impact on Norway’s role internationally as a major power at sea.

“If we succeed in building infrastructure for digitization at sea and at the same time get different robot systems to work together underwater, on water and in the air, we’ll be able to exponentially increase the operational capabilities and economic viability for data capture in mapping and monitoring the ocean,” he says.

The centre is one of several new centres emerging from NTNU AMOS, which is led by Sørensen.

“The new centre will significantly escalate the work and focus on marine robotics. It will also strengthen the research efforts that NTNU, SINTEF, Equinor and the Research Council of Norway have invested in laboratories and infrastructure associated with the AUR-Lab / Ocean lab, which will be an important part of the future Ocean Space Centre,” says Sørensen.

Watch a video about the work with underwater robots, like the snake robot Eelume, that is happening at NTNU. (Article continues below the video).

Autonomous robots open up completely new possibilities

Our knowledge of ocean areas is still limited. Detailed observations are far more challenging to carry out at sea than in the atmosphere.

Autonomous underwater vehicles – in collaboration with other robotic platforms on the Earth’s surface, in the air and in space – open up completely new possibilities for researching and monitoring the ocean.

By using autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), we can gain a better understanding of marine ecosystems that are crucial for value creation and management in the ocean.

AUVs also open up many new opportunities to develop the marine industry through robotic inspection and intervention. This is important for offshore wind energy production and aquaculture, as well as for safer installations, operations and maintenance for the offshore gas and oil industry.

Trondheim a world leader

A key focus area in the new centre is how AUVs will navigate between specified installations, inspect the installations and possibly perform a task before returning to their own permanent parking station on the seabed for updates and maintenance.

The design of the equipment’s technology is based on solving non-linear differential equations of the hydrodynamics and mechanics that describe the movements of the robot, the installation or the ship.

The research group in Trondheim is a world leader in the development of the mathematical basis for a general snake robot, the construction of this type of robot and the development of control systems and autonomy for marine robotics.

“The centre’s ambitions are important for the long-term national utilization of our ocean resources while also maintaining environmental awareness as paramount,” says VISTA board chairman Ole M. Sejersted.

Bergen also gaining new VISTA research centre

The expert group that considered the application from Professor Sørensen states that the centre will deliver scientific knowledge at the highest international level and develop an academic environment in fields such as marine cybernetics, marine robotics, artificial intelligence and hydrodynamics.

Four professors developed the application to VISTA to fund a centre for autonomous underwater operations. Sørensen was joined by Professor Kristin Ytterstad Pettersen, Professor Martin Ludvigsen and Adjunct Professor Kjetil Skaugset.

(In the interest of transparency, please note that Skaugset sits on the VISTA board as a representative of Equinor. He excused himself from participating in the processing of the applications, in line with normal practice. The award is made after evaluation by an independent, international expert group.)

A total of eight centre applications were received. VISTA has also provided support for the establishment of a centre at the University of Bergen led by Inga Berre, professor of applied mathematics. This centre will be called the “VISTA Centre for modelling of coupled subsurface dynamics” and will develop basic knowledge about how liquids and gases move in porous media.

The VISTA programme: Collaboration between research and business

VISTA is a basic research programme funded by Equinor in collaboration with the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. VISTA's goal is to develop an effective mutual collaboration between Equinor and Norwegian basic research environments:

  • through the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, to ensure efficient, interdisciplinary communication between Equinor and Norwegian basic research environments.
  • to stimulate and support Norwegian researchers and basic research environments in priority areas, and relevant to Equinor's activities.
  • to ensure the efficient organization and qualified staffing of basic research projects.

More than NOK 300 million has been distributed by the VISTA programme in support of young researchers and as VISTA professorships since its inception in 1985.

The collaboration is part of Equinor's Akademia research programme.