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World Creativity and Innovation Week: exploring the potential of using autonomous underwater vehicles to monitor Marine Protected Areas

By Kate Wade and Ness Amaral-Rogers


To celebrate World Creativity and Innovation Week (WCIW), we have a series of blog posts looking at some of our recent innovative work. Following on from the update from our International Implementation Team earlier in the week, today it's the turn of our Marine Monitoring Team.

Throughout World Creativity and Innovation Week, our teams are showing how we’re using novel tools or methods to help nature recover. As one of our core values, Innovation allows us to adapt to emerging issues. In today’s blog post, find out how the Marine Monitoring Team are investigating the application of technology in a new method to monitor Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

MPAs are clearly defined areas that are recognised, designated and managed through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values. Thirty-eight percent of the UK’s waters are designated as MPAs, larger than the land area of Finland. The development of a network of MPAs in the marine environment is part of the UK’s commitment to protecting its seas and associated benefits to society for future generations.

JNCC has been at the forefront of providing technical advice on the development of the UK MPA network for over 18 years. We are involved with all stages of the MPA implementation cycle, from initially identifying the site, to monitoring and assessment to understand whether the conservation objectives of the site are being met. MPAs need to be monitored every 3 to 6 years to see how they change. Monitoring is traditionally undertaken from a survey vessel using equipment such as cameras and grabs which are sent to the seabed to gather samples for analysis. To learn more about our surveys take a look at some of our previous blog posts.

The UK Government’s marine Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment (NCEA) programme is hoping to make this data collection easier through funding an innovative new project, delivered by JNCC, the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) and the University of Southampton. JNCC’s Marine Monitoring Team is exploring the feasibility of using images collected using shore-launched Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) for monitoring MPAs. As part of the project, NOC and the University of Southampton have recently completed a fully autonomous benthic survey of Central Fladen MPA (funded by NCEA) using an AUV, famously known as 'Boaty McBoatFace'. Central Fladen MPA is designated for its burrowed mud features. 

The AUV carried the University of Southampton’s BioCam instrument, a three-dimensional seafloor imaging system that generates detailed images, as well as texture maps and microtopographic maps of the seafloor. Our team will compare the images collected by the AUV with images that were collected using traditional methodologies to assess their potential for offshore monitoring in the future. Based on preliminary work, this is looking quite positive. It appears that the larger burrows made by Nephrops (the crustacean commonly known as Langoustine or Scampi) can be identified with some confidence, as can the Tall Seapens (Funiculina quadrangularis). The smaller species (Slender and Phosphorescent Seapens, Virgularia mirabilis and Pennatula phosphorea) are less easy to identify from the images, however we are working with NOC and The University of Southampton to understand how the resolution of the images could be improved for any future surveys.

Other features such as sponge communities and reefs may be more easily identified and assessed with imagery at the current resolutions, and it would be interesting to see data from sites of this nature. We are still in the early stages of this project and are excited to understand the potential to our work.

AUVs have been used to gather ocean data for over 20 years, but this new application of AUVs has the potential to generate higher quality seafloor mapping data and seafloor photography than comparable systems deployed by survey ships. Use of AUVs may be more cost-effective and enable us to visit a broader range of sites than is currently achievable, complementing our existing monitoring activities. In addition, shore-launched AUV-based surveys could be a way of reducing the carbon footprint associated with offshore monitoring surveys using traditional vessel-based methods and aid towards the UK’s transition towards reaching Net Zero.

Images 1 and 2: Example images taken at Central Fladen MPA using the BioCam instrument mounted on the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, Boaty McBoatFace (courtesy of University of Southampton and National Oceanography Centre).


Images 3 and 4: Images of the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, Boaty McBoatFace being launched (courtesy of National Oceanography Centre).

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