Nelson Mandela University: Mandela Uni Ocean Sciences and Engineering collaborate on research

Nelson Mandela University’s School of Engineering recently supported ocean research with airborne drones and a kite borne surveillance system to study marine mammals up close – not possible from the research ship.

Engineering’s Autonomous Operations group (MAO), with the support of the Advanced Mechatronic Technology Centre (AMTC), were invited to participate in the Resilience oceanographic cruise as a drone support team, aboard the Marion Dufresne research and supply vessel.

The cruise, over 33 days in April and May, departed from and returned to Reunion Island and focussed on the study of interactions between ocean physics and biology on a “small scale” (~10km).

The scientists studied oceanic fronts on the edge of eddies (whirlpools) in the Mozambique Channel and on the east coast of South Africa. The Resilience cruise (pictured above) is part of a long term established scientific collaboration between the teams of Mandela Uni’s Prof Mike Roberts and the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) in South Africa, which both actively contribute to the cruise organisation and its achievements.
Mandela Uni staff members on the cruise were Prof Mandy Lombard, Chair of Marine Spatial Planning, Prof Lorien Pichegru, Acting Director of the Institute for Coastal and Marine Research (CMR), assisted by Dr Gwenith Penry, Damian Mooney, drone operator and project Manager for the Mandela Uni Autonomous Operations group (MAO), and Jan de Jongh, master’s student in Mechanical Engineering (MAO).

In parallel to the eddie observations, marine mammals, birds, and pollution observers were invited to gather data while underway. To improve visual detection over long range, airborne drones and a kite borne surveillance system were brought on board to intercept marine mammals during times where the ships predetermined path did not allow for close contact.

The drones were equipped with petri dish collectors enabling them to collect mucus samples while above whale blow holes when weather and sea state conditions allowed. The drones were operated from the deck of the ship, often hand launched and retrieved.

The research team comprised 50 international scientists, led by Jean-François Ternon (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) researcher at UMR MARBEC (Joint research unit Marine Biodiversity Exploitation and Conservation).

The scientific research team represented various research organisations from France, Mozambique (Eduardo Mondane University) and South Africa (Nelson Mandela and Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch).

In conjunction with the research, the Resilience cruise also hosted an international floating university comprised of 20 students and two supervisors, from the University of Bretagne Occidentale (UBO), of the Littoral Côte d’Opale (ULCO) and Côte d’Azur (UCA).

The cruise was funded by Conservation International (CI), the Advanced Mechatronic Technology Centre (AMTC) and the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD).

The collaboration of Ocean Sciences and Engineering has resulted in new capabilities for both departments. Engineering has gained ties and access to research vessels opening new research and development opportunities for students wanting to focus on autonomous systems related to marine research (airborne and underwater drone technology).

Several students were involved with the development of the airborne kite surveillance equipment leading up to the cruise as well as the development and testing of long-range drones able to operate in the harsh marine environment.

The close proximity flying needed for the ship-based operations has resulted in the incorporation of First Person View drones giving the pilot, and ultimately the University, the ability to perform close inspections and observations of high speed moving targets, opening up new possibilities of data acquisition.

The use of drones for marine mammal observation now gives the opportunity for non-invasive observation and sample collection which was not possible previously. Further research will take place into using long-range fixed-wing drones to survey mammals in the open ocean which would normally require human carrying aircraft and the associated costs.

Mechatronics PhD student Jacques Welgemoed will represent Nelson Mandela University onboard the Agulhas 2 on an Antarctic cruise to research how low temperatures and high sea states affect the performance and usefulness of drones in those environments.