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Research and education for the ocean economy

Science, technology, innovation

Kevin Forshaw, provides an insight into some of the cutting-edge research projects carried out by the University of Plymouth

The OECD predicts that the ocean economy will double in size by 2030 to over US$3 trillion, as the ocean is increasingly viewed as a resource for food, energy and even mineral wealth. However, this growth will only be achieved where a healthy and productive ocean can be maintained. The Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth leads developments in carbon-free energy and in finding new ways of capturing and interpreting ocean data to inform offshore operations, helping to ensure sustainable operation. For the UK as an island nation, the ocean is of huge national importance to our economy; £40 billion in terms of GDP and second only to the aviation industry. We are hugely reliant on maritime transport, with 95 per cent of goods entering via ships; and with vessels becoming ever larger and complex, Plymouth is also globally leading in the safeguarding of shipping against maritime cyber threats.

Developing the offshore renewable energy sector

RV Falcon Spirit
The 14-metre catamaran RV Falcon Spirit, one of the Plymouth University Marine Institute’s fleet of vessels, used for oceanographic sampling and hydrographic surveying. Photo: Marine Institute

The south west of the UK is home to a wealth of existing expertise in emerging technologies and the University of Plymouth’s history of excellent coastal engineering spans back over decades, frequently leading the way for innovative solutions to global engineering challenges.

In particular, the University’s COAST Engineering Research Group generates significant impact on the development of offshore renewable energy (ORE) and marine renewable energy (MRE), both nationally and internationally, securing over £20 million in new research grants since  2012. To date, it has supported 41 businesses, carrying out 58 development projects with them, and has engaged in numerous leading consortia on large-scale collaborative developments in the UK and the EU.

As these sectors grow, Plymouth supports skills development through the UK’s first MSc in MRE, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in coastal engineering and marine technology. The COAST unit spearheads the development of many aspects of technology and knowhow in ORE, leading not only to increased economic value for collaborating developers, but also to graduate employment and placements for students with industry partners visiting the laboratory.

Leading the Supergen ORE Hub

The University of Plymouth leads the Supergen ORE Hub, a consortium of 10 UK universities, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The Hub brings together academic and industrial expertise from across the ORE sector; its vision is to provide research leadership in order to connect academia, industry, policy and public stakeholders, inspiring innovation and maximising societal value in offshore wind, wave and tidal energy. It is central to the UK ORE community, bringing together shared skills and expertise, transferring fundamental knowledge, and sharing learning and use of resources for interdisciplinary research, whilst taking a whole-systems approach.

Safeguarding shipping from maritime cyber attacks

As in other transport sectors, both informational and operational technologies are used in maritime operations, and these systems have often been run in isolation, physically and cyber-wise, leading to separate management, organisation, and usage.

However, in today’s digital technology trends, information and operation technology convergence is becoming more and more popular. This integration combines the data-centric aspect of computing with the operational systems used to monitor and interact with the physical world.

The risks of evolving digital technology can be seen globally, affecting digital and physical safety. While improved technology generally leads to improvements in costs, efficiency and crew safety, new cyber-security risks are introduced because of the increased connectivity, the number of devices, and the complexity of those devices. In particular, concepts like the Internet of Things (IoT), which is driven by a desire for more information and control, encourages increased digital connections. To add IoT levels of connectivity, many maritime systems require significant complex upgrades, dramatically changing the digital threat landscape, with new vulnerabilities leaving critical infrastructure like ports, ships, and maritime organisations at risk of industrial espionage, cyber-crime, and sabotage.

The risk both to operations and to national security from cyber-attack is very evident, and the Maritime Cyber Threats Research Group at the University of Plymouth has been leading the world in shaping solutions to safeguard the sector. Its members have developed sector-specific risk assessment frameworks to identify exactly what measures should be taken dependent on vessel type, cargo and where in the world the vessel is operating.

The University is also spearheading a global first with an investment of over £3 million into a Cyber-SHIP (Software, Hardware, Information and Protection) laboratory. Working with 18 partner organisations and supported by Research England, this will see the construction of a physical ship’s bridge alongside existing bridge simulator facilities at the University. The bridge will contain all the usual equipment, and can be configured to represent any vessel in question, enabling the ruggedisation of new equipment, and providing insights into the technical and human-factor mitigation required, leading to new policy development and advanced mariner training.

Stimulating the regional economy with new technology for ocean measurement

Navigation Centre’s Ship Simulator
The Marine Navigation Centre’s Ship Simulator. Photo: Marine Institute

Capturing data from the ocean is essential if we are to understand how any operation impacts it. But vast tracks of the world’s oceans are data deserts, requiring new technological solutions that both reduce the cost of data acquisition and improve safety, by taking humans out of the loop. New exciting ways of capturing information about many ocean parameters are being enabled by remote sensing from satellites and through developments in marine robotics and sensor technology.

A key component of the University of Plymouth’s mission is to generate a positive social and economic impact from its research outputs. The Marine Business Technology Centre (MBTC), a city-wide project funded by the European Regional Development Fund, exists to create new opportunities for Devon-based small and medium-sized businesses to take part in collaborative research, development and innovation activity, many of which relate to new methods of ocean observation that can also be demonstrated within the Smart Sound Plymouth offshore proving area.

As part of its participation in the MBTC, the University has recently secured a state-of-the-art unmanned marine vessel capable of conducting high-tech research off the south west coast. The C-Worker 4 will be based at the University’s Marine Station, and is the first major unmanned asset to join its substantial fleet of vessels and marine field equipment. The C-Worker 4 has been developed and supplied by L3Harris, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of unmanned marine systems. Measuring just over 4 metres long, and weighing 680 kg, it can travel at speeds of up to 7 knots and stay at sea for up to 48 hours.

Encouraging biodiversity in coastal protection and aquaculture

Minimising the impact of any ocean operation is key, but in some cases we have also engaged with business for positive impact. ARC Marine produces Bio Blocks for coastal defences, working with our scientists on the design of holes and depressions that replicate rocky intertidal areas, to stimulate biodiversity.

Further work is now taking place in the lab to create a new version of the product that can be used to prevent scour around fixed wind installations, potentially extending the economic working life of windfarms.

As we strive to feed an ever-increasing global population, advances in aquaculture are vital too. The University has received over £1.3 million research income during the last 10 years for further research in fish nutrition, fish health and microbiome research. We have an extensive interaction with the Offshore Shellfish Ltd mussel farm in Lyme Bay, where preliminary results suggest that the rope installations and elevated biomass within the farm, as compared to the surrounding area, attract a wide range of species including brown crab and lobster, many of which have commercial value.

The Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth

The University of Plymouth’s Marine Institute is the first and largest such institute in the UK, providing an external portal to an extensive pool of world-leading experts and state-of-the-art facilities. It enables an understanding of the relationship between the way we live, the seas that surround us and the development of sustainable policy solutions.

The University’s long-held affinity with the ocean environment frequently involves working with the industrial sectors that engage with it. With 3,000 staff, researchers and students, there is a wealth of expertise and support available through the Marine Institute across a broad spectrum of sectors, meaning the University can help your business – whether large or small, local or international – benefit from research and development, training and the development of future skills.

Kevin Forshaw is Director of Industrial and Strategic Partnerships at the Marine Institute of the University of Plymouth.