Ensuring the survival of underwater robots in hot tropical waters



The hot, humid environment of tropical marine areas such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia can destroy autonomous marine systems. Underwater and surface MAS are used for marine monitoring, locating objects such as mines on the sea floor, and rescuing swimmers.

Melanie Olsen, Project Manager says ReefWorks Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), a technology testing and evaluation facility in Northern Australia. “Microbial and microorganisms that live in these tropical environments grow rapidly on underwater surfaces and degrade the performance of sensors and the hydrodynamics of autonomous robots and systems.”


Developing technology that can stand up to these conditions is part of Olsen’s mission, as well as supporting ReefWorks’ broader mission to help others move their autonomous systems out of the lab. It is essential to test these systems and gather compliance evidence to demonstrate that they meet regulatory requirements and can be certified for operations, says Olsen, a senior member of the IEEE. Olsen says there are too few places to test marine robotics, autonomous systems, and artificial intelligence (RAS-AI) technologies, which hampers industry growth. “It is difficult for RAS-AI vendors to progress from a prototype to a commercial product because the path to an approved system is complex.”

That’s why I created AIMS ReefWorks. The facility is used to test manned and unmanned tropical and marine vessels as well as robotics, sensors and other innovations. “We are in Australia – and possibly the world – the first such testing facility in the tropics,” Olsen says. Examples of MAS include underwater and surface ReefScan CoralAUVwhich is used for marine monitoring, and Adaptive Wave Module Shipa surface ship used for marine observation, locating mines and other objects on the sea floor, and rescuing swimmers.

AIMS has been testing equipment for more than a decade, but that part of the AIMS facilities opened to the public in December 2021. ReefWorks supports the entire development cycle, from digital model validation and development testing to product and operational level testing, Olsen says. Physical tests can be performed in the three offshore field ranges of AIMS, which provide different test conditions. ReefWorks also has onshore facilities, as well as a National Sea Simulator Sensor Test Tank, and drone corridors between open sea ranges to check the performance of long-range autonomous marine systems.

Our overall goal is to create independent sustainable marine systems [MAS] in Australia “.

One of the ways ReefWorks helps its users make the most of their time in test domains is by offering “digital twins” and virtual worlds. A digital twin is a virtual model of a real-world object, machine, or system that can be used to evaluate the performance of its real-world counterpart.

“Each of our testing domains is developing a digital twin,” Olsen says. “Developers will be able to run a test task on the virtual scale, so when they get here, they can rerun the tasks with data collected in real time, and validate the performance of their digital MAS model.”

Olsen leads a five-person team and is currently recruiting five more. It expects staff to triple in a few years as ReefWorks becomes more established in the region.

Senior member of IEEE, Olsen is active with IEEE Northern Australia Division. She held the position of head of the department in 2020 and 2021, during which time the department achieved District 10 Award for Outstanding Junior Division.

Integrating AI and IOT المدمجة embedded computing

Prior to joining AIMS, Olsen spent a decade at Australian Department of Defense (DOD) as Principal Engineer working on future technologies and naval electronic warfare systems.

Olsen grew up in a farming family and wasn’t really exposed to computers or engineers even as an energy efficiency lecturer James Cook University, in Australia, to her rural high school to give a presentation. He brought with him a remote-controlled quadcopter – a decade ago quadcopters were common.

The lecture led Olsen to a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical, Electronics and Computer Systems, also from James Cook University in Townsville. I went for a master’s degree in systems engineering from Australia University of New South Wales in Canberra. In 2016, Olsen took a job at AIMS as an engineering team leader in technology development.

“I am very excited about new technologies and seeing them integrated into the field,” she says. “During the decade I spent in [Australian] Department of Defense, I have developed my systems engineering skills to solve the most complex technology integration challenges. AIMS provided me with an opportunity to apply these skills to the challenges facing the tropical marine environment. “

“We are Australia – and possibly the world – the first such testing facility in the tropics.”

There are many similarities between what Olsen was doing at the Department of Defense and her role at ReefWorks. “My work in both DOD and AIMS requires an understanding of how electronic subsystems work, defining what is applicable to a use case, understanding the importance of modeling and simulation, and being able to communicate engineering terminology to a multidisciplinary team,” she says. “Both roles revolve around solving engineering problems.”

Olsen is currently working to integrate advanced computing for artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things into the AIMS infrastructure. “Artificial intelligence is used to augment the capabilities of the autonomous marine system,” she says. “For example, AI is being used to train MAS to navigate and avoid collisions with reefs, other ships or other objects or to allow MAS to identify specific marine species and reef areas suitable for reseeding and offshore mines.”

IoT computing is used to process data near its point of origin. “This potentially speeds up decision-making for ships and operators while reducing the communications and data bandwidth required, which are major limitations when operating in offshore northern Australia,” Olsen says.

Since GPS doesn’t work underwater, another project for her team is looking at additional ways to perform accurate geospatial positioning and control missions that don’t require autonomous marine systems to surface.

“We are just beginning to learn about what autonomous marine systems can do — not just for our tropical marine waters but in general,” she says. “There are huge challenges that no one can solve at the moment, such as dealing with ocean pollution and the effects of climate change.”

Robotics engineers are needed

Olsen says there are nowhere near enough robotic engineers in the world. It recommends that engineering students take courses that include group projects.

“Group projects help you develop your ability to solve problems outside of your knowledge or experience,” she says. “They teach you how to work as a multidisciplinary team, who to ask for help, and where to find it.”

This article appears in the October 2022 print issue of Melanie Olsen.



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