A team of researchers at UEA have helped design a robotic boat which will collect vital information about the causes of rising sea levels in extremely cold environments.

Working with engineers at AutoNaut Ltd, the UEA-based scientists wanted to create a boat that could withstand the Antarctic climate, and wouldn’t face problems such as getting stuck in thick ice or the onboard technology malfunctioning.

Tests to determine the robustness of the boat are still being undertaken in UEA’s own Roland von Glasow ice chamber, a purpose-built laboratory which aims to replicate extreme environmental conditions, such as those found in the polar regions.

One of the main challenges the design team have faced so far is stopping the boat from being covered in ice from sea spray, which could be detrimental to its ability to collect data.

To tackle this issue, researchers have been testing a range of non-stick materials which either see the ice slide off the vessel immediately, or flake off over time.

Dr Martin Wadley, who designed the tests said, ‘We’ve been surprised by the results so far – some of the coatings that we expected to repel the ice have actually ended up encrusted with ice, and this might be a problem for the boat in the polar oceans.’

Ultimately, the unmanned boat will gather a range of important environmental information, transmitting it autonomously from the ocean surface to the lab. Factors that will be measured include: air temperature, wind speed, and plankton abundance. Data gathered will allow scientists to quantify heat and gas exchange between the atmosphere and the ocean.

These indicators will also allow scientists to better understand extreme environments, without the costs and risks related with traditional research vessels.

Professor of Environmental Sciences at UEA, Karen Heywood, explains that the boat will also be environmentally friendly, using waves to propel itself forwards and solar panels to power the technology onboard.

Mike Poole, the Director of AutoNaut, said ‘Antarctic waters are a serious challenge, but one we are thrilled to take on. If we can build an unmanned boat to survive in the Southern Ocean, we’ll be sure it can thrive anywhere.’

The project is being funded by Innovate UK.

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