Nutrient sensors on autonomous vehicles

Department Name: Science and Technology


Oceans occupy 70% of Earth's surface and play a key role in influencing our climate, weather and food security, yet they are still largely not yet explored or understood. In particular it is essential that we increase our understanding of ocean chemistry, because it determines how ocean ecosystems function and respond to changes in our climate and increased human activity. Seawater chemical measurements are usually taken using a research ship to collect water samples, which are then either preserved and sent back to the laboratory or analysed on-board the ship. Research ships are incredibly expensive to build and operate, and this really limits our knowledge of chemical distributions in our oceans (and how they change over time). We could say that the oceans are under-sampled.
This has led to the development of several robotic systems (Marine Autonomous Systems) which operate either on the surface (e.g. Unmanned Surface Vehicles) or at depth (e.g. underwater gliders and Autosub). In order for robotic systems to be realistically able to replace or augment the activities of a research ship, it is essential for them to be able to take chemical measurements on-board. Currently there is a real lack of reliable and accurate chemical sensors that can be deployed on marine autonomous systems, preventing these systems from reaching their full potential. This project will advance the development of a whole family of miniaturised nutrient analysers developed at NOC so that they can be routinely deployed on autonomous vehicles. The sensors are effectively miniaturised laboratories (lab-on-a-chip) which perform seawater chemical analysis in microfluidic channels using tiny amounts of seawater sample and chemical reagents. The results of these analyses (information about the concentration of nutrients in seawater such as phosphate and silicate) will be transmitted from the autonomous vehicle using satellites, so that scientists back in the lab can receive real-time data. We have been developing these sensors for several years and have deployed them previously in rivers, estuaries and in the ocean. This project will improve the sensors to make them more suitable for deployment on marine autonomous systems, and represents the final push to allow them to achieve routine usage on robotic marine vehicles. Ultimately, this will result in more complete and lower-cost ocean chemical datasets, helping advance our knowledge of how ocean ecosystems work and how they respond to a changing climate.
To ensure that the sensors can be used widely, we will work with industry, including existing partners, to make commercial products that can be sold to a wide range of users. This will enable scale-up and widespread use of the technologies and project outputs.

Planned Impact

This ambitious project will develop a mature platform technology enabling six new operational (TRL 8) nutrient / micronutrient sensors currently at TRL4-6 and integrate them into six platforms (AutoNaut, C-Enduro, Kongsberg Seaglider, Slocum, Liquid Robotics WaveGlider and ALR). It will build on existing integrations of Nitrate (TRL 7) and will run parallel to our projects integrating LOC onto profiling floats. By 2021 we will have seven operational nutrient and micronutrient biogeochemical sensors integrated with seven MAS platforms. This is a step change in the capabilities of MAS and the portfolio of sensor products with commercial potential.
Direct economic impacts of the project include the production of six new sensor products at TRL8. We expect commercialisation through licensing with the successful bidder in our already running IP auction for the platform technology with deadline for sealed bids 16/01/2017. Seven companies are actively bidding including UK and international SMEs and corporations and world leaders in environmental and industrial instrumentation. This means that a product based on the LOC platform, and incorporating the improvements we will make in the project, are highly likely. We predict first (pioneer) products for the LOC platform will be launched FY 2018/19. The global market for nutrient sensors is in the order of £120M/yr or £600M over 5 years.
Because of the integration and deployability on a wide range of MAS platforms the project will support the growth of MAS observation systems. This will stimulate economic activity including business for MAS platform (see LoS from MOST and ASV), sensors, systems and services companies.
In the medium to longer term, the data returned from widespread nutrient and micronutrient enabled MAS measurements will generate impact by underpinning process studies and biogeochemical models, as well as satellite derived data products. Such data will enable improved ocean productivity estimation and understanding of ocean processes with impacts: in the fisheries / aquaculture sector; for understanding of ocean biogeochemistry and biology; for climate change impact assessment and mitigation / adaptation and; through improved management of exploitation of ocean resources.
Governmental/NGO end users who will benefit from the MAS capabilities, and the data generated include: IPCC, Copernicus, EA, DEFRA, CEFAS, the UK Marine Science Co-ordination Committee (MSCC), the UK Marine Management Organisation (MMO) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). In addition to instrument manufacturing partners (above) we have existing collaborations with the following sectors: governmental (EA, CEFAS (see LoS)); offshore energy (e.g. Shell, BP) industry, including the growing carbon capture and storage industry (CCS); the water industry (through the Sensors for Water Interest Group (SWIG)) and directly with water companies and service companies; and the aquaculture industry (through CEFAS and directly). These sectors are eager to trial our products as to meet operational needs and statutory commitments: sensors potentially reduce the cost of data by at least an order of magnitude. In addition they are partnering with us to develop new products. E.g. the CCS industry require high resolution nutrient sensors to enable stoichiometric approaches to separate biological derived carbon flux and variability from leak associated sources.
The general public will benefit from improved services and environmental management. Many will also interact with the project. We will communicate through our open days and existing high profile activities in the accessible media assisted by our communications teams.
We will disseminate widely primarily using patents, publications, exhibitions and trade shows, conferences, accessible media, student programmes (e.g. training the next generation of autonomy professionals through the NERC/EPSR CDT NEXUSS) and through UoS and NOC websites.


10 25 50

Description That autonomous vehicles, both large and small, can be augmented with Lab on chip / microfluidic sensors to measure nutrients (Nitrate, nitrite, phosphate, silicate, iron, trace concentration iron, and ammonia) enabling in situ measurement of these parameters with the latest marine observing systems
Exploitation Route Transition of the sensors into operational parts of marine science, such as the NERC national marine equipment pool and / or under the auspices of the NERC National Marine Facilities, or UKRI infrastructure roadmaps
Commercialisation for impact in wider applications and markets
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Electronics,Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Transport

Description This project has advanced the TRL of the NOC lab on chip chemical sensors helping to develop their commercial potential. A license to the IP has been agreed with Clearwater Sensors Ltd. see "spin out" section. The ability to sense biogeochemical parameters from carbon efficient autonomous vehicles and ocean observing platforms contributes to the path to Net Zero for ocean observing capability.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Electronics,Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description (TechOceanS) - Technologies for Ocean Sensing
Amount € 8,975,662 (EUR)
Funding ID 101000858 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 09/2020 
End 09/2024
Description CEFAS lowestoft lab 
Organisation Centre For Environment, Fisheries And Aquaculture Science
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We collaborate with CEFAS Lowestoft on the development and application of new sensor technologies for their operational and research requirements. We provide sensors R&D, deliver sensors we have developed, as well as with operational support of demonstration deployments and operational data gathering campaigns.
Collaborator Contribution CEFAS Lowestoft provide access to operational infrastructure including instrumented buoys, autonomous vehicles and ships often with co-sampling that can be used to benchmark sensor performance which is essential for demonstrating sensor performance and value in an application. They also supply operational and scientific knowledge of applications enabling the technology to have enhanced impact into resource management and policy.
Impact Deployment of nutrient sensors on the RV Endevour and on Smart Bouys in the Thames and coastal sites
Start Year 2009