Sub-THz Radar sensing of the Environment for future Autonomous Marine platforms - STREAM

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Electronic, Electrical and Computer Eng


The impending era of autonomous shipping will create a revolution in maritime navigation and mission planning which has many parallels with the revolution which is already underway in the automotive world and will impact all aspects of vessel design, manufacture and operation, reducing costs and environmental impacts. The key enabler will be the role of advanced electronics to provide the platform with full intelligence to facilitate autonomous operation with sensing and processing capabilities superior to those of a human.
Merchant shipping companies announced autonomous vessels in 2018 []. However, in addition to large autonomous ships, there is a growing, potentially huge, market for small/medium agile vessels, demanding new sensing capabilities to provide situational awareness of the proximate environment. Their requirements differ significantly from those of large ships: (i) for the safety of the boat, humans or sea animals in/on the water, robust all-weather day/night detection and classification of small objects is required at ranges of up to ~300 m - too close for large ships to manoeuvre, (ii) large waves are more hazardous for smaller boats so wave profiling is critical for adaptation to the dynamic environment and safe path planning.
We assert that the key sensor modality to satisfy these requirements is novel sub-THz radar operating in the 140-340 GHz frequency spectrum. By its nature, radar is robust to the conditions that limit electro-optical (EO) sensors, but the proposed short wavelength and wide bandwidth can bring key capabilities unavailable in traditional marine radar: (i) imagery that is closer to familiar video, able to exploit the vast legacy of image processing algorithms; (ii) greatly improved cross-range resolution from a small sensor, leading to significant improvements in detection and classification of small objects and compatibility with small vessels; (iii) 3D imagery that can highlight objects; (iv) sensitivity to surface texture which will facilitate image segmentation and, ultimately, enable detection of anomalies within the mapped scene; (v) adaptability of the waveform for enhanced scene assessment in the spatio-temporal domain.
This proposal falls under EPSRC's Sensors and Instrumentation theme, addressing the challenge of providing new and essential capabilities for situational awareness for small marine craft, ensuring safe and efficient operation in dynamic sea conditions. This will be achieved by creating a sub-THz intelligent radar, delivering superior imagery, precise measurements and cognitive scene assessment by adapting radar parameters and using novel data processing including: (i) two-stage data assessment to detect and classify objects as anomalies in the '5D descriptor space' of range, cross-range, elevation, Doppler and micro-Doppler and (ii) mapping the dynamic 3D sea surface in real time. This will enable reliable detection of hazards including small surface or semi-submerged objects, hazardous seas at ranges up to ~300 m with high spatial and temporal fidelity.
The proposal comprises a wide scope of essential research stages: phenomenological studies of sub-THz scattering and propagation above the sea surface, comprehensive analysis of radar signatures and imagery of marine objects and environment and development of cognitive sensing strategy and signal processing to provide situational awareness.

Planned Impact

The major impacts of this work will arise from the scientific work on propagation and scattering of THz waves in a marine environment, image resolution enhancement and 3D mapping, and development of cognitive strategies for small object detection. This will provide situational awareness on small vessels to yield improved safety and protection of sea life. We will publish scientific results in open access publications and create a publicly available repository with datasets of labelled radar signatures and imagery to aid development of classifiers for marine objects, both by industry and by other academic organizations around the world. Technological innovation protection by patents will enable a financial return via licensing and, ultimately, by commercialisation through partnership with industry.
A principal target for the impact is the potentially huge emerging sector of autonomous operation and support for the helmsman, for smaller professional and pleasure boats, which will be an important market for the UK and global shipbuilding industries in coming years.
Through the project's Stakeholder Advisory Group the project will ensure that its work remains well aligned to the needs of industry, and that industry itself is aware of the work. These are both major factors for ensuring that the work will be taken through to production. This will form its industrial impact and then the deployment of these systems will increase safety at sea for humans, and also enhance the safety of sea mammals, thus in turn reducing the damage to the environment which is a consequence of such accidents/collisions..
The proof that sub-THz radars can provide the solution to meet the autonomous marine sensing requirement will also spur the advance of the emerging technology of sub-THz components and sub-systems and support further work in this area. In particular, the system designs which emerge from this project will inform the component designers of the performance which they will need to achieve.
The close industrial connections of the work will also inject a particular note of the practical relevance of the research, which will increase the impact of the academic publications.
The project will lead to a significant impact in the areas of regulation of maritime operations and radio regulations, in order to enable autonomous vessels to operate effectively. Industry operates under a framework of international regulation, supervised by the International Maritime Organisation and the International Telecommunications Union respectively. The project will influence these bodies indirectly, through the Stakeholder Advisory Group whose industrial members have inputs to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Ofcom who in turn have inputs to the international bodies.
A different but another important impact arising from the measurements on sea mammals will be the development of the principles of novel techniques for monitoring sea mammals, in particular to check on their presence in areas where man-made structures, such as oil rigs or wind farms, might affect their environment. The project's publications and the measurement data base will provide the basis for the commercial and the bespoke academic development of radar systems to perform this task. The progression of this impact will be supported by the presence of representation of the SMRU Consulting Ltd. on the Stakeholder Advisory Group.
The PhD students and Research Fellows working alongside the senior staff and recognised scientists will gain valuable experience, knowledge, communication and technical skills to develop capabilities that they can transfer to their subsequent industrial or further academic careers. Working with industrial partners will increase their awareness of system integration aspects and industrial needs and will give broader vision which will result in high quality expertise in both academic and industrial research paving ways to leadership in academy and industry.


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