Monday, 30 May 2016

AUV hits Orkney

In the week of large scale remembrances of the Battle of Jutland that will include amassing parts of the British Naval Fleet, the German Fleet and possibly parts of the Danish fleet we made our own bit of history by testing for the first time one of the new generation of survey vehicles the Gavia AUV in the waters of Orkney.  The Gavia (Teledyn, Iceland) Autonomous Underwater Vehicle is a type of propelled platform designed to deploy geophysical instruments for survey beneath sea.  The vehicle looks like a small torpedo and in our configuration has onboard a complex navigation system, sidescan-bathymetric sonar and a high resolution camera.  The sonar is used to map the seafloor and to obtain backscatter images of the features on the seafloor.  The camera can likewise be used to identify seafloor features and to mosaic complete maps of what is there. There are two big advantages of using AUVs over conventional surface-based survey methods.  The first is that by flying an AUV beneath the surface it will not be affected by the noise and motion of waves and thus be able to “fly” in a steadier manner.  The second is that it can be pre-programmed for the survey and launched from either a boat or the shore.  With a forward looking sonar onbaord for collision avoidance the AUV does all the work while you sit back and have a cup of coffee – at least that is what should happen in theory!

The AUV (named “Freya”) was brought to the site by a team from the Scottish Association for Marine Science out of Dunstaffnage (SAMS) and was part of a small grant awarded to us by the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology Scotland (MASTS).  For John Howe, Karen Wilson and Colin Abernethy it was a first for not only visiting Orkney but also for using the AUV on an archaeological project.   Time was split between surveying the loch of Harray, near to the Ring of Brodgar and Ness of Brodgar archaeological sites and surveying in the Bay of Firth close to areas where we have previously mapped and reported unusual features on the sea floor.

The Rising Tides project has been investigating the area around the Ring of Brodgar for a number of years.  Most recently we have completed a full bathymetry and sub-bottom sonar survey of the loch of Stenness to the west.  The purpose of this work was to reconstruct the palaeo-landscapes and environments when the Ring of Brodgar and Ness of Brodgar were being built and used. What our work demonstrates is that the loch was smaller at that time and further that there was a complex history of sealevel rise associated with the infilling of sediments with a step change in sediment input coincident with changes in vegetation in the catchment at about 6ka BP. For more details on this see our publication “The environmentalcontext of the Neolithic monuments on the Brodgar Isthmus, Mainland, Orkney

Caroline and I have also been experimenting with digital reconstructions for the area that can be seen on our test site "Ancient Lands

AUV in the Loch of Harray
In order to match the work in the loch of Stenness we brought the AUV to the loch of Harray.  This loch is a shallow, freshwater loch to the east of the Brodgar isthmus.  Previous surveying with the sub-bottom profiler showed it to not only very shallow at the southern end (less than 4m water depth), but also that the sediments were gas saturated for the most part.  Because of the very shallow water the AUV was not able to “fly” beneath the water and had to be operated as a surface vehicle.  This, combined with the fresh water challenged both the vehicle and the operations team to come up with novel ways of ensuring the AUV did not either crash into the bottom or into any of the small fishing vessels on site! Unfortunately, the weather also proved problematic with strong winds.  The vehicle was able to survey a few lines of data but the automated tracking features did not work correctly and so the vehicle did not manage to stay on course in order to survey a complete grid of data.

AUV in Bay of Firth
Following the tests in Harray (also useful because it was a confined loch and so there was no chance of the AUV being lost out to sea!) we took Freya to the Bay of Firth.  Here she was much more at home back in saltwater and also with a greater depth range to work in (up to 9m water depth).  A survey grid was programmed in the centre of the bay over areas where we have previously recorded and dived on unusual stone features.  Freya was deployed from a small rib and perfectly performed her planned mission of bathymetry mapping, sidescan sonar imaging and photography.  The preliminary results, processed within minutes of return to shore (another huge advantage over old methods of survey) showed a resolution that we had not seen before.  Fantastic new images of the seafloor which we will now ponder over before our return to dive on them in August.  Look out for results in a later post.
The AUV opens up a new era for us with archaeological survey.  There are so many sites that could benefit from this type of survey and many new and exciting discoveries to be made.
The AUV team with Richard and Caroline in Orkney - check out the renewable power sources!

 PS – on a historic note, the Gavia is approximately half the size (half the length and diameter) of the original WW I torpedoes and weighs about the same as the explosive head that these carried

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