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UEA researchers help ensure robotic boat can survive freezing temperatures

PUBLISHED: 00:00 22 October 2018 | UPDATED: 11:27 22 October 2018

Tests on the AutoNaut' robot at the UEA. Dr Martin Wadley, who designed and constructed the tests.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Tests on the AutoNaut' robot at the UEA. Dr Martin Wadley, who designed and constructed the tests. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2018

Researchers at the UEA are helping to design a robotic boat capable of surviving the extreme temperatures of the Antarctic.

The University of East Anglia (UEA) team is working with engineers at AutoNaut Ltd to create a vessel that will collect vital information about the cause of sea-level rise.

The boat will use waves to propel itself forward and is equipped with solar panels to power the electronic systems on board.

But with air temperatures reaching below -10C, there is a risk ice will form on the vessel, which could damage some of the scientific sensors.

That is why UEA researchers have been conducting a series of tests in a specially conducted sea ice chamber, which replicates the polar environment.

Tests on the AutoNaut' robot at the UEA. Dr Martin Wadley, who designed and constructed the tests.
Picture: ANTONY KELLYTests on the AutoNaut' robot at the UEA. Dr Martin Wadley, who designed and constructed the tests. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Prof Karen Heywood from UEA’s school of environmental sciences, said: “The AutoNaut will be able to collect scientific data very efficiently over long distances and long missions.

“We need to understand how warm water gets underneath the Antarctic ice to melt it and cause sea level rise.”

The team has been testing various coatings to make the boat’s surface non-stick.

It is hoped the coatings will ensure sea spray rolls off the vessel, before it can freeze.

Tests on the AutoNaut' robot at the UEA. 
Picture: ANTONY KELLYTests on the AutoNaut' robot at the UEA. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Should enough ice form on the boat, it could cause it to capsize and fail to right itself.

Dr Martin Wadley, who designed and constructed the tests, said: “We’ve been surprised by the results so far, some of the coatings that we expected to repel the ice have actually ended up encrusted with ice, and this might be a problem for the boat in the polar oceans.”

The coatings have been tested in the UEA’s Roland von Glasow sea ice chamber.

Other experiments will test the boat’s different components in extreme conditions.

Tests on the AutoNaut' robot at the UEA. 
Picture: ANTONY KELLYTests on the AutoNaut' robot at the UEA. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

The unmanned boat will be used to autonomously gather and transmit data from the ocean surface - such as air temperature, wind speed, plankton abundance or carbon dioxide - so scientists can measure how much heat and gases are exchanged between the atmosphere and the ocean.

These sensors will enable scientists to better understand the extreme environments of high latitude oceans, with significant reduction in cost and risks relative to conventional research vessels or other techniques.

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