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Thomas the roboboat

‘Thomas’ the ocean robot has set out from Cornwall to reveal secrets of the sea
Thomas the ocean robot

A pioneering marine robot has embarked on a two-week mission to capture images and data to record ocean life in a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ off the Cornish coast.

What lies beneath…

The unmanned, British-built surface vehicle, known as ‘Thomas’, is part powered by wind and solar energy and controlled remotely by satellite. Part of a new partnership between WWF and the National Oceanography Centre, Thomas will give scientists a better understanding of what lies beneath our oceans, helping improve conservation and marine management.

Thomas started his mission of discovery on 22 May. Accompanied by support vessel ‘Blue Thunder’, he left Newlyn and headed for an area near the Isles of Scilly, where an oceanic front dividing different water masses can be found.

‘UK seas are a national treasure and contain more wildlife – from sharks to sunfish – than many people think. But they are under pressure from climate change, pollution and the marine industries that use our seas, and need careful protection. Thomas will help us learn about the life that is out of our sight and to safeguard our seas for future generations.’

Head of Marine Policy at WWF-UK

Ocean fronts – regarded by scientists as biodiversity hotspots and an important focus for marine research and conservation – attract an abundance of plankton, which in turn attracts fish and top predators including basking sharks, seabirds, dolphins, porpoises and whales.

Data capture

Thomas will carry sensors to detect marine life and simultaneously monitor the surrounding environment, including the temperature and salinity of the water and weather conditions at the sea surface.

He will be carrying GoPro cameras to capture images of seabirds and marine macro-litter, and passive acoustic monitors to detect clicks and whistles from echo-locating marine mammals such as harbour porpoise and common dolphin. Thomas will be assisted in this task of by a sub-surface glider known as Drake, who will use a similar array of sensors to search up to 100m below the surface.

Real-time snapshots of data collected by Thomas and Drake will be transmitted via satellite back to mission control at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, allowing scientists to adapt mission plans according to what they see.

Next month the vehicles will return to base laden with all their pictures and data, which are expected to reveal the extraordinary richness of these waters. The information could help policymakers and scientists assess what additional measures might be needed to protect them.

The next gen seafarer

The vessel is named Thomas after the father of Roland J Rogers of the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), the latest in a line of five generations of seafarers. Thomas, and many of the innovative sensors he is carrying, was developed by small British coastal tech companies, highlighting the growing strength of the rural maritime economy.

‘Marine robotic technologies give us the opportunity to have a persistent presence in the ocean, and are changing the way in which we conduct science in the marine environment. The two vehicles on this latest mission are bristling with novel sensors that will act as our eyes and ears in the water, observing and detecting seabirds and marine mammals. The partnership between NOC, WWF and British platform and sensor developers allows us to demonstrate the potential of this clean, green technology to marine scientists, conservationists and policy-makers.’

National Oceanography Centre

Lack of data about the marine environment can make it difficult to carry out effective marine conservation and management, such as the designation of Marine Protected Areas. Autonomous vehicles or ‘robots’ can help solve this problem, as they present a low-cost alternative to large research ships as a means of gathering data.

In the long term, developing countries in particular could benefit from the use of these vessels to carry out marine monitoring in some of the least-studied areas of the ocean, enabling them to develop more effective conservation and management plans.

Thomas was designed and built by Portchester based ASV. Throughout the mission Thomas will be operated from ASV’s Control Centre in Portchester.

Click here to find out more about the National Oceanography Centre.

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