Probing the depths without getting wet
Accurate and replicable measurement is the basis of the scientific approach, and while there has been tremendous progress over the last two decades, many science goals remain elusive because we simply do not have the tools to make the necessary observations and measurements. With this in mind, European Marine Sensor Technology researchers met at Dublin City University on 26th March to exchange information on new and emerging developments in marine sensor technologies.
New developments in “omics” sciences, the use of innovative stimulus and photo-responsive materials, Lab-on-a-Chip (LOAC) technologies and using chemistry to replace electronics were among the emerging technologies presented that could drive the future development of the marine sensors sector.
Prof Dermot Diamond (National Centre for Sensor Research, DCU), Dr Chantal Compère (Sensor Research Laboratory, Ifremer, France), Dr Matt Mowlem (Sensor Development Group, National Oceanographic Centre Southampton, UK) and Prof João Borges de Sousa (Underwater Systems and Technology Laboratory, Porto University, Portugal) described cutting edge sensor research being pursued by their laboratories.
Participating European SMEs (e.g. OPTIMARE, MARAC, Chelsea Technologies, NKE Instrumentation) described new products and services coming on the market and the necessity of close collaboration between institutional researchers and those working in SMEs throughout the development life cycle from initial concept to operational products.
In addition to exchanging information on new developments in sensor development, the Workshop also heard of new developments in the platforms that host sensors: from airborne mounted sensors for the detection and identification of oil pollution, to autonomous sensing devices deployed in-situ on fixed data buoys and sensors attached to mobile autonomous and remotely operated vehicles, gliders and vessels of opportunity. New demonstration/test facilities to support marine technology, including sensor development, such as the Irish SmartBay initiative (www.marine.ie/smartbay) and the Spanish Canary Island Oceanic Platform (www.plocan.eu), were described.
Prof Gwyn Griffiths, Head of the Underwater Systems Laboratory at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (UK) and convenor of the Marine Technology Theme of the UK Natural Environmental Research Council’s Oceans 2025 Programme, welcomed the development of demonstration/test facilities pointing out that, using a Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) approach, the gap between system technology prototype demonstration in an operational environment (TRL 7) and systems technology qualified through test and demonstration (TRL 8) is often well addressed in North America through high risk start-up funding, but is weak in Europe. This puts European researchers/SMEs at a disadvantage in accessing global markets with qualified and tested products.
This puts European researchers/SMEs at a disadvantage in accessing global markets with qualified and tested products. Prof Diamond agreed with this perspective, pointing out that a critical gap in our research and innovation funding profile was the unlocking of cooperation between SMEs and multinationals on scaled up deployments of prototype instruments, devices and associated services. Even modest scale-up (e.g.10-20 devices), he said, would suffice in that delivery of these devices is really the role of SMEs, whereas the knowledge lies in the Universities and HEI-based research centres, and the multinationals are focused on the bigger picture. The existence of this gap is the principle reason why so few research projects lead to real commercial products and demonstrable socio-economic impact.
One of the key objectives of Sea Change - A Marine Knowledge, Research & Innovation Strategy for Ireland (2007-2013), is to build new research capacity and capability to create new marine-related commercial opportunities. Under the Sea Change Advanced Technology Programme research initiatives such as the seven-year Beaufort Marine Research Award in Marine Sensors and Communications, the EPA / MI funded Deploy Project (which focuses on scaled up field trials) and the establishment of strategic industry partnerships, e.g. IBM and SmartBay Pilot Project, aim to address this gap.
While many international market analyses have identified environmental sensor technologies as a major growth area and many sensor developers had anticipated that more stringent environmental policies and monitoring requirements, such as those proposed under the EU Water Framework and Marine Strategy Directives, would stimulate the market for new sensor arrays (market pull), there was little evidence of this yet occurring.
New funding models need to be explored said Richard Burt (Chelsea Technologies Group) who described new innovative partnerships between sensor developers and vessels of opportunity. In the example given, cruise liners are sponsoring real-time sensors which are mounted on board giving passengers up-to-date information on the quality and status of the waters they are traversing. The cruise liners get real-time information that can improve vessel safety and operating efficiency, passengers get interesting information, the sensor developers get funding to test their systems, science gets the data: a win-win for all!
In a session on “What can Funding Organisations do to better support sensor research? researchers emphasised the need to elaborate mid to long-term funding strategies, avoid the stop-start approach to funding and facilitate the development and retention of key expertise. Industry participants unanimously stressed the need to bridge the funding gap between the laboratory prototype and operational field equipment, supporting Prof Griffiths arguments. Participating SMEs also stressed the need for publically funded researchers to better understand the commercialisation process.
The Workshop “New Developments in Marine Sensor Technologies: Opportunities and Challenges” was sponsored by the EU FP6 MarinERA Project (www.marinera.net) and attended by over 35 researchers and SMEs from 8 European Member States.