Fresh WAys of Targeting and Employing Robotic Systems (FreshWATERS)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Faculty of Engineering & the Environment


Ocean observations are key to understanding the present climate, and improving future predictions. While satellite observations can estimate ocean surface circulation at broad scales, the smaller scale dispersal and transport in narrow regions (e.g., of freshwater in coastal areas around Greenland) are difficult to observe. These regions, however, can have a remarkably large effect on the global ocean circulation, particularly as Greenland and the Arctic appear to be melting at accelerating rates. Surface drifters are small, autonomous floats which travel with ocean currents and transmit their location to a base station via communications satellites. These drifters give an accurate, local measurement of ocean currents.

While drifters themselves are relatively inexpensive, deploying them to remote regions requires the use of global class research vessels. These ships are expensive to operate, and are prohibitively expensive for repeated deployment over longer periods (e.g., an annual cycle). This limits the effectiveness of the mapping, particularly as the currents in many regions of the oceans vary seasonally.

This project proposes an alternative: the concept of the balloon-borne drifter. Attaching each drifter to a gas balloon (similar to the commonly used latex weather balloons) means that it can be launched from land, fly to a target area (taking advantage of high-altitude winds), and then make a gentle splashdown at a target location. Using forecasts of high-altitude winds several days in advance, can give us a close approximation of where a simple balloon (and its drifter payload) will splash down. Moreover, adding an altitude control system to a balloon will enable an automated flight planning system to select the altitude to fly at, thus steering the balloon. The on-board altitude control system will also allow a controlled descent for gentle release of the payload (the drifter). The aim of FreshWATERS is to design the on-board altitude control system and the flight simulator/planner for the balloon.

To maximize the scientific effectiveness of the FreshWATERS system, we will simulate the release of a fleet of drifters over a target region in the ocean. By testing these deployments in an ocean simulation, we can better prepare for subsequent 'real' deployments. In this case, the Labrador Sea, between Greenland and Canada, is a site of special interest: it is both remote and difficult to access by global class ships, is a region where satellite measurements of ocean currents are insufficient to capture the scales at which the ocean varies, and where climate simulations have predicted that freshwater influx can have an impact on North Atlantic and, indeed, global ocean circulation. With this case study, we will be able to fine tune the FreshWATERS system, putting into place all the ingredients of the next stage: the development of a commercially viable and scientifically powerful new way of understanding the physics of the world ocean.

Planned Impact

The major impact of FreshWATERS will be on the future potential of the developed technology.

FreshWATERS has future potential for economic and societal impacts with more effective disaster response.

Oil spills, such as the Deepwater Horizons disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, have, in the past, seen extensive deployments of drifters and they have proven their effectiveness in terms of monitoring and predicting the spread of surface contaminants. It is envisaged that FreshWATERS will offer benefits here in terms of the most important aspect of such operations: deployment speed. Whether launches take place from oil platforms, ships participating in the relief effort or from land, balloon-borne delivery has to potential to cover very large areas very quickly (with the the optimization algorithm built into the campaign planner running under a set of constraints designed to ensure flight path deconfliction with aircraft participating in the disaster response). Such time savings translate into increases in the effectiveness of response measures, reducing the environmental impact of the spill.

FreshWATERS also provides potential for a better understanding of future climate. The broad class of science questions FreshWATERS proposes to answer has a direct link to understanding future climate, with its well-known immense societal implications. With discontinuities and high sensitivities to forcings commonly encountered in ocean circulation models, even marginal improvements in accuracy could have a significant impact on predicting the most serious effects of climate change.

On the immediate timescale (that is, the 12 months of the proposed project) the key non-academic beneficiaries will be commercial providers of oceanographic observation equipment, who will gain a perspective into the potential of this new technology, with the outcomes of FreshWATERS allowing them to make technology investment decisions for the main (TRL 4 to 9) development phase. It is in this spirit that we welcome the involvement of Planet Ocean Ltd throughout the duration of the proposed project.

During and immediately following the FreshWATERS programme, we will have immediate impact on the public by publicising visual details of the virtual balloon-launch campaigns on the UoS physical oceanography blog (available to the public) and the UoS oceanography Facebook page. In addition, we plan to publicise the technological potential both to the oceanographic community through presentations at conferences, e.g. the EGU general assembly, and also to the offshore industry at the next Ocean Business (a conference for ocean technology and offshore survey), to be held in 2017 at the National Oceanography Centre. We will also use the National Oceanography Centre Ocean and Earth Day (held annually in March) to provide an interactive display (typically over 1000 visitors including school children and the general public).


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Description The goal of this project was to assess the feasibility of disruptive technologies in the field of ocean current tracking using instrumented drifters. The typical ocean drifter weighs several kilograms, costs hundreds or even thousands of pounds and relies on complex infrastructure (research vessels) for its delivery. FreshWATERS showed, at a low technology readiness level, that our concept for a possible new generation of drifters has the potential to bring a step change here in terms of cost (down to tens of pounds), weight (tens of grams) and delivery requirements. The disruptive solution to the issue of needing expensive research vessels is the use of high altitude, steerable balloon systems for the low cost delivery of a very large number of drifters, which allows significant enhancements to the resolution of their mapping capabilities. The prototype systems has demonstrated the feasibility of the air delivery component, as well as that of the drifter itself, in the process also refining the concept, which, as a result of developments in FreshWATERS is now ready for further - possibly commercial - development.
Exploitation Route There are two key avenues we are pursuing. First, we are in talks with a possible commercial partner for the industrial development of the prototype into a commercially viable product that could make a very significant impact on ocean current mapping practice. Second, scientists working on observations of oceanic mixing processes are likely to take our proposed concept and methodology into account alongside more established ways of deploying Lagrangian drifters. Beyond scientific applications, we anticipate uptake in the energy sector, with particular applications in oil spill tracking.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Energy

Description We have begun discussions with a possible commercial partner regarding continued development of the prototype, into a commercial product.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine
Impact Types Economic

Description TERIFIC (Targeted Experiment to Reconcile Increased Freshwater with Increased Convection)
Amount € 1,999,909 (EUR)
Funding ID 803140 
Organisation European Union 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 11/2018 
End 10/2023
Description ISNAO summer school 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Co-I Frajka-Williams spoke to an audience of post-doctoral researchers and postgraduate students in a talk titled "MOC and tools for observing the oceans".
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Marine Autonomy & Technology Showcase 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact The Marine Autonomy & Technology Showcase (MATS) took place at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton in November 2016. Co-I Dr Frajka-Williams and PI Dr Sobester spoke to the audience of industrialists, PhD students, etc. about early progress on FreshWATERS and future plans, as well as opportunities for engagement.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description University Open Days 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The paper drones developed as part of Project MAVIS and the drifters and high altitude balloon systems developed as part of Project FreshWATERS have formed an integral part of our Open Days designed to show off our research capabilities to prospective undergraduate students and their parents.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017,2018