Research project turns to dolphins to develop new sensor technology

Offshore staff

EDINBURGH, Scotland – Heriot-Watt University’s Ocean Systems Laboratory, Hydrason Solutions, and the Scottish Centre for Sensors and Imaging Systems (CENSIS) will develop an enhanced wideband sonar system based on the detection capabilities of bottlenose dolphins.   

Using signal processing techniques gleaned from previous research conducted on the marine mammals, the project aims to improve the range of data collected by wideband sonar devices.

The group said that the sensor technology inspired by these dolphins could help extend the life of oil and gas pipelines by using remotely operated vehicles (ROV) to detect blockages.

The technology could enable users to locate underwater objects, as well as identify their structure and composition, without making any direct contact. The system could also determine whether an underwater support is still structurally sound or identify wildlife on the seabed.

Dr. Keith Brown, associate professor at Heriot-Watt’s School of Engineering & Physical Sciences, said: “Bottlenose dolphins are extremely good at detecting objects in the water – using sonar, they can detect fish in the sand which can’t be seen by the eye. Earlier research also showed that dolphins can differentiate between the contents of a variety of filled aluminium bottles using signal processing.

“We analyzed the characteristics of these signals and, using transducers, have reproduced frequencies within the same parameters, as close as possible to those created by dolphins. This breakthrough means our new wideband sonar system can provide its users with even greater environmental, seabed, and structural detail.

Brown noted that the system could also detect hairline cracks in rigs’ support legs, or changes to the sediment on the seafloor.

The system will be deployable on a range of nautical vehicles, including autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) and ROVs. Multiple surveys can be conducted from one ship, making the device an economic way of collecting data.

Chris Capus, CEO of Hydrason Solutions, said: “In many industries, acoustic surveys are going on all the time – particularly as oil rigs and other installations begin to be decommissioned. The opportunities for companies to cut costs are huge.”

CENSIS is backing the initiative with a grant of £40,000 ($59,000) and project management support from its team. The project is expected to last 10 months.

Ian Reid, CEO of CENSIS, said: “This project has particular relevance to the energy industry, which has faced a number of challenges in the last 18 months. By embracing new ways of working and technological advances, like the wideband sonar system, they could realize significant cost savings and efficiencies. With oil prices still low, and likely to remain subdued, it could be particularly useful to the oil and gas industry.”


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