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Crewless vessels are mapping the ocean thanks to an Irish startup 

Ocean-based industries are expanding rapidly, increasing demand for data on sea-surface conditions. However, the massive research vessels that are typically used to map the seas come at a high financial and environmental cost.

XOCEAN, an Irish startup, has proposed an alternative. Its uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) — roughly the size and weight of an average car — are equipped with sensors that collect ocean data and transmit it via satellite to shore-based experts.

According to the company, this increases safety while lowering the cost and emissions associated with ocean surveying. XOCEAN claims that its USVs emit 1,000 times less carbon dioxide than conventional research vessels.

"If no one needs to go offshore, this keeps people out of potentially hazardous environments," says James Ives, founder and CEO of XOCEAN. Additionally, "(we have) a negligible environmental impact... and we believe we can deliver data at a lower cost," he notes.

Ocean activity

XOCEAN reports that its growing fleet of USVs has completed 30,000 hours at sea and more than 100 projects since the company's inception in 2017. It has been used by the oil and gas industry to conduct pipeline surveys, by fisheries to collect acoustic data on fish populations, and by environmental researchers and monitoring organizations to conduct environmental research and monitoring.

The vessels are propelled forward by a battery charged via solar panels mounted on the deck and a small diesel generator. They can measure depth, air and water temperature, wind speed, wave height, and tidal flows because they are equipped with sensors such as multibeam echo sounders that send sound pulses into the water and bounce off the seabed.

According to a 2016 OECD report, the ocean economy is expected to be worth more than $3 trillion by 2030, with strong growth predicted in offshore wind, fish processing, and shipbuilding and repair.

"Data is the bedrock of any ocean activity," Ives says, noting that demand for XOCEAN has skyrocketed. The company had approximately 20 full-time employees at the start of 2020; it now has 112. It has raised approximately €8 million ($9.4 million) in funding and currently operates out of offices in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Following that, the company plans to expand into Asia-Pacific, increasing its fleet from 15 to 40 vessels by the end of the year.

According to Ives, new interest is primarily coming from the offshore wind industry — both from clean energy giants like rsted, which hired XOCEAN to conduct a site survey for the world's largest offshore wind farm, and from oil and gas companies transitioning to renewables. BP (BP) recently announced that it would be utilizing XOCEAN's USVs to survey an area in the Irish Sea in preparation for the award of two 60-year offshore wind leases.

"We are witnessing a sea change in the energy markets toward a more renewable future," Ives says.

Greener, less expensive, and safer?

XOCEAN is not the only company benefiting from this trend. There is L3Harris, whose unmanned vessels have been used by the US Navy, Saildrone, which has collected data for environmental research from the Arctic to the equator, and Ocean Infinity, which is spearheading the development of larger uncrewed vessels.

However, demonstrating safety to marine regulators continues to be a challenge. In the United Kingdom, "all regulations were written with the intention of having someone onboard," according to Katrina Kemp, an autonomy technical specialist with the UK government's Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which issues permits for uncrewed vehicles to operate in national waters.

USV operators must demonstrate that their vessels have an equivalent level of safety, she says, including how the boat would react in the event of a collision or what would happen if the remote operator's technology failed or the vessel's communication lag increased.

"We have to be absolutely certain that the plans and processes in place, as well as the equipment they're using, ensure that if something does go wrong, the vessel will remain safe and will not endanger others," she tells CNN Business.

XOCEAN's vessels employ light detection and ranging (lidar) technology to detect nearby objects, and each active vessel is monitored 24 hours a day by a USV pilot and surveyor. They can exert control over navigation if the vessel deviates from its intended course and ensure that it adheres to "the rules of the road at sea," as Ives puts it.

Each watercraft can spend up to a month at sea without a human on board — which means more time for data collection. Additionally, it can operate in adverse weather conditions that a crewed ship would avoid. "We've had a vessel out in truly appalling conditions, and we're sitting here in the safety of our homes," Ives explains.

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