Marine robots welcome public to new Ostend research centre


Expertise and hardware at the Marine Robotics Centre will create new opportunities for researchers and the marine industries

Blue economy

The robots Zonnebloem, Barabas and Adhemar were presented to the public this week at the opening of Ostend’s Marine Robotics Centre. The three sea-going machines – named after professors from Belgian cartoon strips – are part of a €3 million investment intended to establish the Flanders Marine Institute (Vliz) as an international centre of expertise in this area.

“Marine robotics can become the driving force for significant future activities at the Flanders Marine Institute,” said Johan Hanssens, secretary-general of the Flemish government’s Department of Economy, Science and Innovation. “This investment of €3 million will enable it to create new value chains in the Blue Economy.”

The Blue Economy is the catch-all term for business connected with the sea, in particular when it is assisted by new technologies. In this context, robots promise to make a contribution to relatively new industries, such as offshore energy and aquaculture, as well as finding applications in traditional sea trades, such as shipping, fishing and the extraction of minerals.

Adhemar is propelled by the movement of the sea so can operate alone for weeks or months at a time

Marine researchers are looking to the robots to help deepen our understanding of how the oceans function and the impact of climate change. Vliz’s Marine Robotics Centre is designed to give researchers, maritime companies and innovators access to this high-tech equipment, and the expertise in how to use it.

The three robots have been extensively tested over the past year and are now ready to be deployed. Zonnebloem (think Professor Calculus in English) is an underwater vehicle that is controlled by operators on the surface. Able to dive to a depth of 1,300 metres, it is mainly used for deep-sea research.

Barabas is an autonomous underwater vehicle, ideal for tasks such as surveying wrecks and other underwater obstacles close to the seafloor in minute detail. And Adhemar is an unmanned surface vessel that monitors conditions in the atmosphere and water. Its instruments are powered by solar panels, but it is propelled by the movement of the sea alone, so it can operate for weeks or even months at a time.

In addition to performing research and other studies, it is hoped that the robots will inspire young people to think about careers in the Blue Economy. To this end, Vliz plans a range of educational activities in the years ahead.

Photo: Researchers put Zonnebloem to work on deep sea research
©Courtesy Vliz