Keynote Speech: No Communications - No Autonomy: Communications and Marine Autonomous Robots

No Communications - No Autonomy: Communications and Marine Autonomous Robots
Professor David M. Lane FREng FRSE
Heriot-Watt University

Autonomous underwater robots have moved from laboratory prototypes to commercial systems for inspection and survey tasks in offshore oil and gas, environment monitoring, search/rescue and security applications. Recent examples in the news include the Deep Water Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Fukushima nuclear reactor incident and the search for the Malaysian Airlines MH370 wreckage and black box. These autonomous robots operate in isolation or collaboratively as part of a group. Soon, laboratory prototypes that can autonomously manipulate and interact will make their way into commercial systems for inspection, repair and maintenance tasks. Dedicated ocean observatories are now being designed and deployed involving autonomous robots, gliders and fixed instrumentation on the seabed. Mobile robot fleets are being deployed over several weeks and hundreds of miles to observe ocean fronts.
Communications and networks play an essential role in these applications. They are the key means to keep operator and robot jointly situated, leading to good decision making by both parties. With multiple robots, they are the means for sharing mutual world model information of interest, in turn leading to improved synchronisation of robot activity and more efficient operation. With limited bandwidths and ranges, data transmissions have to be prioritised and relayed by platforms. Transmissions will be interrupted, leading to periods of communication blackout between platforms. This burst nature of data flow creates requirements for vehicles and operators to use prediction and assumption to take decisions and adapt mission plans on the fly, with the potential for revision once transmissions are restored. Without communications for extended periods, operators face decisions about mission termination according to the application.
The talk will look at some typical operational scenarios in these application sectors and the various ways autonomous operations are critically dependent on underwater communications and networks to be effective and trusted. A specific approach to networking a decentralised world model will be considered, with automatic robust information exchange over an acoustic network, driven by the information needs of peer nodes. It uses a contention-free TDMA transmission scheme with a fixed time slot allocation, with different exchange policies designed to take advantage of this. The prospects for using marine mammal inspired bio-acoustic signaling will also be considered, building on recent developments in multi-chirp bio-sonar echo location, ranging and classification.

David Lane graduated in 1980 with a BSc in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and again in 1986 with a PhD in Underwater Robotics. In 1979 he worked offshore in the North Sea as diver/maintainer for British Oceanics Ltd, and from 1980-82 as a Development Engineer at Ferranti Ltd. From 1982 he held a series of research and academic appointments, culminating in a Professorial Chair at Heriot-Watt University in 1998, and visiting Professorships at Florida Atlantic University in 1999 and Edinburgh University from 2006. In 1995 he took up Directorship of the University’s Ocean Systems Laboratory ( and led it’s development to a staff of 30 funded from the UK Research Councils, Ministry of Defence, European Union and US Office of Naval Research. In 2001 he founded SeeByte Ltd/Inc. ( and as CEO until 2010 lead the company’s organic evolution from startup to a multi-million dollar organization. Growing at an average 45% pa during the recession, continually cash positive, with 75% of its business in exports to three continents and offices in Edinburgh, San Diego and Seattle, the business won the 2010 Praxis Unico Business Impact Achieved Award and 2013 Scottish Digital Technology Award for International Growth, and successfully exited to Bluefin Robotics, Boston Mass. in 2013. In 1995 he was H.Burr Steinbach Visiting Fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and in 2007 was Scientific Advisor to the NATO Undersea Research Centre, La Spezia, Italy. In 2012 he co founded the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics (, a £35M joint venture in research and innovation between Edinburgh and Heriot Watt Universities. The Centre includes the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Robotics and Autonomous Systems training upward of 80 PhD students, and the ROBOTARIUM National Facility for Research into Robot Interaction. Currently he co-ordinates EU FP7 Challenge 2 project PANDORA, (, and leads in others (, In public leadership roles, he chairs the BIS/TSB Robotics and Autonomous Systems Special Interest Group (RAS-SIG) formulating a national cross-sector RAS innovation strategy, and is a Director of the euRobotics aisbl not-for-profit that shapes EU Horizon2020 Robotics PPP. He has been elected to Fellowships of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Society of Underwater Technology, the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Royal Geographical Society.