The development of maritime robotics to study the fine-scale movements of aquatic life (Video)

A 25-minute KESS 2 video case study by Bangor University PhD researcher John Zachary Nash. John Zachary and others involved in this research, including company partner representatives from RS Aqua and H R Wallingford, talk about their exciting fish tracking project which is a cross-disciplinary collaboration in the fields of marine science and electronic engineering. 

Subtitles are available in Welsh or English through the video settings and a transcript of the video is available below. (Transcript is edited in clean verbatim)


John Zachary Nash: My name is John Zachary Nash. I am a computer science PhD researcher studying at Bangor University through the KESS 2 programme. This is a KESS 2 case study on my project, “The development of maritime robotics to study the fine-scale movements of aquatic life”. As is the case with many KESS 2 projects, mine is part of a larger research team run by SEACAMS2 at Bangor University. The project team is a collaboration between schools within the University with backgrounds from marine science, electronic engineering and, like myself, computer science.  

Ian McCarthy (School of Ocean Sciences): My name is Ian McCarthy. I’m a reader in the School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor University, and I’m the academic supervisor input on the ocean sciences side of this collaborative project.  

Jenny Bond (SEACAMS2): My name’s Jenny Bond, I work for SEACAMS2 in the School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor University. I’m a marine ecology researcher and I’m the project lead instigating this collaborative project after we were approached by Michael Case at H R Wallingford to explore the potential for autonomous technologies; really plugging knowledge gaps in our understanding of movements of coastal fish populations, especially in relation to marine renewable energy developments. 

Dr William Teahan (School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering): My name is Dr Bill Teahan and I’m the main supervisor for the project, the Computer Science Lead, essentially.  

John Zachary Nash: The purpose of KESS 2 is to link researchers with an industrial collaborator, and in my case, I’m lucky enough to have two. Firstly, my personal sponsor, H R Wallingford, and the representative and industrial supervisor from H R Wallingford, Michael Case.  

Michael Case (H R Wallingford): My name is Mike Case, I’m with H R Wallingford. H R Wallingford are based in Oxfordshire in the UK, and our interest in this project is looking at developing technology. We produce and manufacture equipment including what’s called the ARC Boat and the ARC Boat Lite, and this is a natural progression of our equipment part of the business and developing technology within that. So, H R Wallingford; we’re an engineering consultancy and physical modelling laboratory and we specialise in water-based engineering challenges. We’ve got one of the largest physical modelling laboratories in Europe, and we also have the equipment manufacturing division as well. We supply a lot of equipment to laboratories around the world and we also produce survey equipment, particularly things like the ARC Boat and ARC Boat Lite, which are autonomous or remote ROV’s that are used for surveys.  

John Zachary Nash: And the other industrial collaboration we have is with RS Aqua, with their representative, Ryan Mowat. 

Ryan Mowat (RS Aqua): Hi, my name is Ryan Mowat. I’m one of the directors here at RS Aqua. RS Aqua are a supplier and manufacturer of ocean science technology and I head up the R&D programmes at RS Aqua. Two of the areas we work in here at RS Aqua is acoustic telemetry for aquatic animal tracking: we use underwater acoustics to track different fish species and different fish populations. And the other area we work in is underwater acoustics more broadly, so we manufacture a suite of high specification recorders that are used for applications such as marine mammal monitoring and underwater noise pollution monitoring as well, so the effect of anthropogenic activities in the ocean space and how those introduce excess noise into that environment.  

What are you researching?

John Zachary Nash: I am researching the use of marine robotics to track migration patterns of fish. This is with the hope of assisting sustainable development and mitigating any impacts on marine wildlife. As for methods, I’m currently developing an autonomous surface vehicle with acoustic sensors in order to track the fine-scale movements. Reactive AI uses the sensory data to autonomously track and follow migratory species to gain insight into these migration patterns.  

© H R Wallingford, 2021

© H R Wallingford, 2021

What is the importance of collaboration between industry and academia?

Jenny Bond (SEACAMS2): Well, it’s fundamental to my work; SEACAMS was set up as a project, as an interface between academia and the marine renewable energy industry and that whole sector. And so, our research is guided by the needs of the industry partner and it really allows our research to be directly relevant to an industry challenge. So, I think it’s all very well academics undertaking research and study but if we can’t apply it to real world issues and actually implement it through companies and industry bodies as a whole, then it has less power behind it, I guess. So, it’s really great to be able to develop relationships between academia and industry, and really as a powerhouse to get the research out into the real world. So, I think it’s really important, and as a researcher, it’s really exciting to be part of an applied project.  

Ian McCarthy (School of Ocean Sciences): I think I’d like to just make the point; the importance of collaboration between industry and universities just on a much broader level is that globally we are facing some serious problems with environmental change, with climate change. And I think as academics there’s a lot of research going on that’s trying to solve the problems and to help us live a more sustainable life and to have less impact on the planet. And as academics, researchers, we can do research which can try and come up with solutions to these problems. But as academics, we’re not going to be the ones that will make the changes. Society as a whole, and industry, is probably very important in helping to make those changes, to implement the changes and to try and solve some real-world problems that we have.  

John Zachary Nash: I think there are huge benefits to collaboration, both academic and industry based. I’m lucky enough to have a multiskilled collaboration with ocean sciences and electronic engineering. This obviously has many benefits, but I think the industry part in the collaboration is great for a multitude of reasons, both directly and indirectly. I think directly I have access to knowledge and equipment and advice and expertise that I normally don’t think would be accessible. I also think that it allows me to pursue solutions for real-world problems and hopefully to have a real-world impact. But on an indirect or personal note, I think as an early career researcher, it’s extremely beneficial. It’s given me insight to the commercialisation process and the industry state of the art. It allows me to network with possible future career prospects and future collaborations. 

Often gaps in the industry market correlate with gaps in scientific research and I think a good knowledge of both can help provide research and products that are greatly desirable to both. Peter and his team at H R Wallingford, their work on the ARC Boat, is a fantastic innovation in the sector. A lot of their development time is directed towards improving their system and utilising the vehicle for its targeted uses. It’s difficult to slow down that development in order to explore more research areas to which the platform could be applied, and I think that’s where I come in, or an academic partnership would come in, because these partnerships allow for research that the company is interested in and want to complete, but they don’t have to sacrifice any development time elsewhere.  

“To remain on the pulse of R&D that’s going on in academia is really important for us because it allows us to look ahead and to see what technological solutions we need to provide for the future for these different research areas. And from a commercial perspective, it allows us to develop new products.” – Ryan Mowat, RS Aqua

Michael Case (H R Wallingford): H R Wallingford have got a long history of working with and collaborating with universities. We do a lot of internal research ourselves but also we join and collaborate with universities on external research funding. So, this kind of research and collaboration is in our DNA really, and particularly for something which is kind of a very early stage, almost a bit blue-sky; doing the research with universities is a really good way of progressing and pushing forward technology. Whereas, a company doing internal research in the company, it’s harder to do just because of the amount of time it takes and the amount of resources it takes. So, it’s being able to collaborate with universities and use all of that important knowledge within the universities, and from the professors and the lecturers and so on to push things forward, is really of great interest to us.  

Ryan Mowat (RS Aqua): We’ve done several of these collaborations between academia and ourselves as a commercial entity, and they’re really exciting for different reasons. Firstly, they’re really fun actually; for all of us to go back and work with folk in academia for research purposes, but to actually provide technological solutions from our side. Those are really nice projects to be involved in. And it also keeps us very close to the science of the projects as well. We’re all scientists by training, but we work in the commercial sector now. And to remain on the pulse of R&D that’s going on in academia is really important for us because it allows us to look ahead and to see what technological solutions we need to provide for the future for these different research areas. And from a commercial perspective, it allows us to develop new products. So, we take the technologies we already have, and we improve them, or we make them more versatile or we integrate them. And those become new products to solve new challenges, provide new solutions for the ocean science sector more generally.  

What is the benefit of a KESS 2 project?

Dr William Teahan (School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering): It allows students to continue working in academia, working in research, gaining experience, and then beyond that they go out into the wide world and either work in industry or continue working in academia. But it allows the students, and it helps support them by providing a salary; supports them with equipment, training, and travel. And often those students may not have the financial resources and other resources or the incentive to continue on their journey in research. So, I think that’s probably the major benefit. But also, there’s the benefit transfer between, and collaboration with, industry as well. It provides the opportunity for knowledge to be transferred not just from university to the industrial partner or partners, but also go the other way as well. 

“I think [KESS 2] is also very good for students in that because of the collaboration between industry and university, they’re getting exposed to two different areas, as it were. They’re getting involved in academic research, but they’re also working with a partner in industry. So, they get to see the two approaches to solving the same problem.” – Ian McCarthy, Bangor University School of Ocean Sciences

Ian McCarthy (School of Ocean Sciences): With the successful running of the KESS 1 project if you like. It’s a well-established programme which is working very, very well and it’s been very successful, and it’s been extended into KESS 2. And I think it’s a very good bridge between university academics and industrial partners for, if you like, seed corn starting research, which may then have greater spinoffs as a result of it. There may be opportunities to then build on that research and go for larger-scale research, collaborative research projects. I think it’s also very good for students in that because of the collaboration between industry and university, they’re getting exposed to two different areas, as it were. They’re getting involved in academic research, but they’re also working with a partner in industry. So, they get to see the two approaches to solving the same problem. 

I think it’s also very important because it’s a good source of funding. So, the student has a grant and a budget to work with; a living grant, a support grant and a budget to work to support their research. And it’s also giving them some very important work experience as well, working with industry, because a lot of people doing MRes or PhD which are just based purely within a university, will get a very strong university training and a university experience, but they won’t have that very important work-related professional experience as well. So, I think KESS 2 projects are very, very good because the students are getting the best of both worlds. And I think it can be a very strong addition to their CV’s going forward for potential jobs. Who knows, maybe even getting jobs with the companies that they’ve been working with. It gives them a good route into industry. I think KESS 2 projects are beneficial both for industry, universities and for the students.  

© SEACAMS2 / KESS 2, 2021

© SEACAMS2 / KESS 2, 2021

How has the project progressed and what are the next steps?

Jenny Bond (SEACAMS2): Well, the project has been running for over a number of years now, so we’ve made some really good progress on simulating the autonomous behaviours and lots of the signal processing work in the background. We’ve run some trials and field trials for the ARC Boats and we’re now at the stage where we can apply much more of the background development work that’s been going on that Zac has been working so hard on. So, we’re at a really exciting stage in the project. And yeah, just really looking forward to the actual fish tagging stages, which is where I come in, and really see how the system responds to the behaviours that Zac’s been developing in the autonomy side of things.  

Ian McCarthy (School of Ocean Sciences): I think the project has progressed well. It’s gone through a very important and exciting developmental phase; trying to get all the electrics to work to be able to pick up the acoustic signal and then to be able to get the position of where the signal’s coming from to then control the movement of the boat. That work’s all been done in laboratory or pond environments and then it’s moved into working in a local lake. And we’re getting to the stage now where we’re ready to put the vessel to sea to work in the marine environment. And we’re getting very close to, for myself as a fish biologist the most exciting bit, which is actually tagging some fish and then trying to track them. So, I think after a lot of hard work by Zac with the industrial partners, we’re getting to the stage where it’s all coming together and we’re going to actually, hopefully, soon tag some fish and be able to track them at sea. 

So, from that point of view, the project has progressed well. I think for Zac as well for his professional development and career development, it’s worked well. He’s managed to successfully write up and publish one paper so far, and we look forward to seeing further outputs from the PhD on that front as well. And I think that the next steps I personally would like to see this as a way of we can build on the collaboration and look to see how we can use the next steps to successfully apply this tracking tool, because there’s a lot of interesting research questions to look at the movement ecology of fish: in estuaries, in coastal waters, in lakes and freshwater. And I think this could be a very, very powerful tool for tracking movements of fish and understanding more about their ecology and their behaviour in the wild. 

What are your hopes for the impact or prospective impact of this research for the wider industry, for Wales and beyond?

John Zachary Nash: The published discoveries are mainly the state-of-the-art studies and feasibility studies of the emerging technology, though in the next few weeks and months I’m hoping to publish developed open-source packages for acoustic processing and localisation. This should be useful for a wider scientific community and looking at acoustic tracking in general, not just in robotics, so we’ll have multiskilled usage in the wider scientific community. As for the robotics and autonomy side, I think our work aims to be an improvement on the state-of-the-art and aims to help a much wider industry than just robotics. The original plan for the projects was to assist offshore sustainability developments in North Wales with both tidal lagoon power and offshore wind farms. But this work is also essential for the future of developing sustainable fisheries and combating overfishing.  

© RS Aqua, 2021

© RS Aqua, 2021

Has the KESS 2 project opened up any further opportunities for the company?

Ryan Mowat (RS Aqua): The KESS 2 project has definitely opened up new opportunities for us as a company. The R&D is still ongoing, but we think at the end of it there’s definitely going to be technology there that we’re going to be able to develop further and possibly productize for use in the fish tracking and conservation sectors, as well as wider ocean science sectors. The robotics field in ocean science, ocean robotics and autonomous systems in the ocean sphere, is really growing at present, so it’s really important that we can provide technologies that feed into that and allow that to develop further as a sector, but also provide more solutions for those ocean robots to use at sea for scientific purposes.  

Michael Case (H R Wallingford): There’s a number of areas where this could be used commercially and we see there’s a definite commercial opportunity, not just for fish tracking but developing these autonomous systems. As I mentioned, we already produce a number of our ROVs. There’s the ARC Boat and ARC Boat Lite and they’re primarily used for surveying, but we can see there’s a lot of scope to expand that out. And if we can make them; at the moment they’re basically remotely operated, you have an operator on the shore operating them, so if we can make them remotely operated and we can get them to talk to each other, we can survey much larger areas and we can make surveying much more efficient. So, we can see even if it’s not for fish tracking, per say, the technology developed around it would have a lot of transferable applications within our business.  

Ryan Mowat (RS Aqua): Projects like this tend to throw up new challenges and make us aware of other questions we need to answer and other technological solutions that we can use in the space, and that’s certainly been the case with this KESS 2 project. We already have our sights on what the outcome of this project will be. But certainly, we would like to take that further and develop the system itself and make it more applicable to other robotic systems in the space. So that’s something that’s developed directly as a result of the KESS 2 project we’re involved in now.  

What’s next for your business? Will you be continuing your relationship with Bangor University after project completion?

Michael Case (H R Wallingford): Yeah, I think we have a long history of working with Bangor University and a number of our staff are ex-Bangor. We’ve got, as well as this project, we’ve also got another student, PhD student, working through Bangor, I believe, working on CFD modelling. So, we’ve got these two Bangor PhD students currently we’re supporting, and I think, going forward, we’d just like to grow that relationship and we find it very fruitful. We like working with Bangor and we hope vice versa, and I think it’s a really positive thing.  

Ryan Mowat (RS Aqua): RS Aqua has a long history of involvement with Bangor University, and specifically the School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor University. I’m a graduate myself from that school. Our managing director has graduated from that school and several of our marine scientists here are also Bangor graduates. I think we’re already looking ahead to the future with regard to future collaborations with KESS 2 and Bangor University and those are absolutely a direct result of the collaboration that’s taken place to date with KESS 2. We foresee other ocean robotics technologies developing as a result of this project, and we’re very keen to explore those further and develop them further, hopefully with KESS 2 again going forward.  

What is your destination or hope for the future?

John Zachary Nash: So finally, I think that links with H R Wallingford and RS Aqua are very strong when it comes to Bangor University, and collaborations will continue as everyone benefits from such a collaboration. As for myself, my research has given me insight into new research areas to explore, and I hope that in the future I am able to explore these developments alongside Bangor University and both of the industrial partners in the form of future research teams. There’s a huge emergence in research-based technological developments in North Wales and I think that WEFO and the Welsh Government have done a fantastic job with providing support to this sort of development with things like KESS and things like M-SParc. And I hope to contribute to driving that technological boom in the region in the future. Thank you.  

With thanks to all contributors; John Zachary Nash (Bangor University KESS 2 PhD researcher), Ian McCarthy (Bangor University School of Ocean Sciences), Jenny Bond (Bangor University/SEACAMS2), Dr William Teahan (Bangor University School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering), Michael Case (H R Wallingford) and Ryan Mowat (RS Aqua). 


H R Wallingford:
Twitter @hrwallingford 

RS Aqua:


Bangor University School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering:

Bangor University School of Ocean Sciences:


“Tracking the fine scale movements of fish using autonomous maritime robotics: A systematic state of the art review”

Published in the journal Ocean Engineering : 1st June 2021