NO SKIPPER REQUIRED: MEET SA’S FULLY AUTONOMOUS SOLAR BOAT

Saimi-funded project set to harvest open ocean data

Is it a turtle? Is it a torpedo? No it’s a fully autonomous solar boat, soon to be launched by the Nelson Mandela University’s Marine Robotics Centre.

The vessel may still look a bit like an overgrown lifebuoy but it is in fact a high-tech piece of engineering innovation equipped with an array of sensors, set to do duty in the Indian Ocean. It is the first of several infrastructure projects planned by the Marine Robotics Centre, made possible by funding from the South African International Maritime Institute.

“The design of the autonomous boat was started in September last year, after the final approval of the service level agreement between SAIMI and the Nelson Mandela University,” said Marine Robotics Centre Project Manager Andrew Young. “The Autonomous Solar Boat was identified as a suitable anchor project for the initiation of activities within the Marine Robotics Unit at the University,” said Young in a statement issued by SAIMI. “

The vessel would be tested at the North End Lake before being put to sea. It has a projected six-hour endurance during which its sensors will record water measurements including oxygen and salinity levels. It is also fitted with an echo sounder for measuring the profile of the sea floor. “The information collected will aid in calibrating the computer models that we have of the ocean,” Young said. “These models are often generated from data via satellite so actual data from the area under investigation is very valuable. Many communities along the South African coast depend on the ocean to provide for their livelihoods, so the ability to predict the fish harvest will ensure that social disasters, can be avoided. Effects that contribute to climate change can also be studied.”

Young said the Marine Robotics Centre was a collaborative unit, exposing students and engineers to the latest international technologies and research opportunities at other national and international universities. “Collaborations with NTNU in Norway and Montpellier University in France will enable the sharing of experts by providing for the exchange of staff and students.  Our collaboration activities with industry will ensure that expert support services are developed in South Africa,” he said.

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