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Sense, assess and mitigate

Northern fieldwork expedition critical to marine pollutants research


By Jeff Green

Researchers have new insight into how underwater robots can be used to detect oil spills and other sensed pollutants in harsh ocean conditions.

A group recently took part in fieldwork in Baffin Bay in the region of the largest natural ocean oil and gas seep in Canada.

The group included a post-doctoral fellow, doctoral and master students, and staff members.

Memorial University President Neil Bose, as the principal investigator for the research project, led the group.

Funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Alliance and Discovery Grants programs, awarded to Dr. Bose as well as co-investigators, collaborators and partners such as Fugro Canada and International Submarine Engineering, made the expedition possible.

After years of planning, including booking ship time months in advance, the team travelled to Nuuk, Greenland, in August, where they boarded the R/V Sanna, a research vessel operated by the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, and eventually travelled to Scott Inlet in Baffin Bay.

There they put the Explorer, Memorial University’s autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), through a series of advanced complex tests to see how it responds to an ever-changing environment with minimal human intervention.

Pictured is a yellow underwater robot featuring the Memorial and Fugro logos. In the background, the ocean and snow and ice-covered cliffs are seen.
The Explorer, Memorial’s autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), during recent fieldwork in Baffin Bay.
Photo: Submitted

Over the years, the Explorer has been used in research projects ranging from environmental monitoring to seabed imaging and vehicle dynamics experiments.

“This technology has the potential to significantly change how we sense, assess and start to mitigate various forms of pollution in our oceans,” said Dr. Bose.

‘Real-time data’

Dr. Bose says the group tested the AUV’s ability to adapt on the fly, leveraging real-time data collected by its integrated payload sensors.

“We ventured into the depths of Baffin Bay, autonomously searching for plumes from the natural oil seep, surveying identified hotspots and taking water samples.”

Six people stand in front of a yellow underwater robot and a ship.
From left are Xi Chen, Dr. Neil Bose, Craig Bulger, Dr. Jimin Hwang, Ginelle Nazareth and Gina Millar.
Photo: Submitted

The research group initially conceived of the fieldwork plan back in 2019.

They were awarded funding from Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Multi-Partner Research Initiative to develop techniques and technologies to aid in oil spill response in Canada.

The expedition included Dr. Jimin Hwang, a post-doctoral researcher and scientific co-ordinator; Gina Millar, a research laboratory co-ordinator with Memorial’s Autonomous Ocean Systems Centre who was the Explorer operator; Craig Bulger, a project engineer with the Centre for Applied Ocean Technology who provided technical support; Ginelle Nazareth, a master’s student who was an assistant of vehicle operation; and Xi Chen, a PhD student who provided sensor data analysis and software support.

“Fieldwork . . . bridges the gap between theory and real-world application.” — Dr. Jimin Hwang

For her part, Dr. Hwang says the research taught her how to navigate unforeseen and unexpected situations and demonstrated the importance of adaptability and quick thinking.

“I discovered the art of crafting solutions with limited resources, a skill that proved invaluable in our remote setting,” she said.

Dr. Hwang also says having the chance to travel to sea to test technology was a “complete game-changer.”

“Conducting fieldwork is not just essential, but absolutely crucial for validating the efficacy of the systems we develop. It bridges the gap between theory and real-world application, ensuring that our innovations are not just functional in ideal conditions but robust enough to withstand the unpredictable nature of the marine environment.”

Teamwork focus

Travelling to a remote region can be as rewarding as it is complicated.

Equipment challenges and information backup had to be resolved with excellent but limited onboard resources, tools and spares that the team took with them.

While they did have access to the internet on the ship, the situation changed dramatically when they ventured offshore, especially during inclement weather conditions.

Pictured is a yellow underwater robot aboard a ship with a low, long iceberg in the background.
Conducting fieldwork is “absolutely crucial” says team member Dr. Jimin Hwang.
Photo: Submitted

“This unique aspect of our fieldwork not only made our mission more compelling, but also underscored the value of resilience and adaptability in the face of unexpected challenges,” said Dr. Bose.

The expedition builds on the team’s work focused on oil spill response research efforts.

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