Research News

VLIZ and Maritime Robotics Unveil Cutting-Edge Long-Range USV

Over the last year, Maritime Robotics and VLIZ have collaborated intensively on the design and build of a highly customized Mariner X uncrewed surface vessel (USV)—named the USV Gobelijn—which is outfitted with a range of state-of-the-art scientific sensors. In addition, USV Gobelijn is equipped with a launch and recovery system (LARS) that is able to deploy ocean gliders. The USV was officially presented on May 30, 2024 (Ostend, Belgium). This investment in the framework of the Brexit Adjustment Reserve (BAR), places VLIZ at the absolute forefront of marine autonomous systems for ocean observation in the marine scientific and innovation community worldwide.

VLIZ, an innovation-oriented scientific institute based in Ostend (Belgium), established its Marine Robotics Centre in 2018, as the logical next step in enabling comprehensive observations of the ocean and seas for marine research and innovation. The institute has built up extensive experience with several robotic platforms and it quickly identified the potential of a long-range, North Sea-proof USV that is able to complement the operations of the VLIZ—research vessel Simon Stevin. In this regard, a project proposal was elaborated in the context of the Brexit Adjustment Reserve (BAR, through Flanders Innovation and Entrepreneurship—VLAIO) to acquire this type of USV. It is envisaged that this capacity will foster collaboration with numerous stakeholders and other marine robotic labs around the North Sea.

USV Gobelijn will be piloted from a remote-control center based onshore. Through various communication channels, the vessel can be steered and conduct scientific measurements for days or even weeks in a row. This allows us to observe marine phenomena on longer timescales, for example across several tidal cycles. This is in most cases not feasible on traditional research vessels due to the high demand for shipping time and the considerable costs. Moreover, the USV significantly enhances the action radius of the VLIZ-observation activities as it can operate—as one of the first in its kind—in the North Sea as well as in a blue ocean environment.

Wieter Boone, Head of Marine Robotics Centre VLIZ, said: “We have defined an elaborate set of provisions and requirements which USV Gobelijn has to meet in order to enable truly remote-controlled operations in the North Sea and beyond. In this regard, we are collaborating intensively with the Belgian and Flemish competent authorities to obtain all necessary permits. Moreover, the USV is equipped with a whole range of state-of-the-art instruments and sensors to investigate the water column as well as the seabed. One of the showpieces is the underway sensor lab (SubCtech) that will allow us to study the carbon chemistry of the seawater and assess the impact of climate change on the ocean. We are also particularly proud of the USV’s capacity to interact with other robots, for example by deploying or aiding them while navigating underwater. It can be stated that the versatile USV Gobelijn with its long endurance and action radius of more than 1,000 nautical miles, make it a small research vessel.”

The construction of the USV was awarded to Maritime Robotics after a public tender procedure in 2022–2023. The company proposed its Mariner X USV for this tender as it met the different requirements that were put forward.

Eirik Moholt, Maritime Robotics, added: “The Mariner X built for VLIZ has pushed the boundaries of what USV technology can do. VLIZ has opened up the possibility of implementing Maritime Robotics' newest situation awareness system and autonomous navigation functions.”

“The situation awareness team at Maritime Robotics worked for months on the new functions and algorithms implemented in this USV. During the harsh conditions of the Norwegian winter, these functions were tested and proved functional. With the vessel's integrated dead reckoning capabilities, the Mariner X will ensure safe navigation in any situation. Together, VLIZ and Maritime Robotics have taken on the challenge of launching and recovering gliders from the Mariner X. This pushes the limits of what has been done with a USV before.”

USV Gobelijn is built for payload flexibility. With a customizable back deck and a payload capacity of 1,000 kg, USV Gobelijn works as a cost-effective sensor platform. Both real-time CTD probes with a winch and an underway water sampling lab are placed on the back deck. With the L-track system and available power and communication, new payloads can be integrated easily. USV Gobelijn has the possibility to install two moonpool elevators for easy installation and operation of subsurface sensors such as acoustic modems and multibeam echo sounders. In the space for the hull-mounted sensors, a single-beam echosounder and an ADCP/DVL were integrated.

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