Islay fishing boat ‘hijacks’ hi-tech ocean drone

The remote-controlled 'Wave Glider' was picked up by a fishing boat. Picture: Contributed
The remote-controlled 'Wave Glider' was picked up by a fishing boat. Picture: Contributed
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A HI-TECH ocean drone being used in a £1.5m sea turbine project was accidentally “hijacked” by a fishing boat.

Experts were baffled when their remote-controlled “Wave Glider” suddenly went AWOL near the Orkney Islands, off the northern tip of Scotland.

It turned out that the skipper of an Islay-registered vessel had picked up the 12ft long bright yellow device – and broken off some of its fragile flaps.

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The Wave Glider was being tested out by the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) to help collect data from sub-sea turbines in difficult-to-access spots.

It’s now undergoing repairs and tests are scheduled to resume early next year.

Scientists tracking it during its trials in the Pentland Firth became puzzled as it started to pick up speed and head west along the firth and then round Cape Wrath before heading south.

It quickly became apparent that the glider was aboard a vessel, which turned out to be an Islay-registered fishing boat. It was subsequently recovered but repairs to damage caused to the gadget during its unscheduled voyage has delayed the project.

The ERI team, based at North Highland College UHI’s Thurso campus, have been leading a EU-funded international venture which investigates the use of cutting-edge technology to collect data from sub-sea turbines in remote locations.

The glider is a platform capable of autonomous navigation with an array of different sensors.

The device was launched from Scrabster harbour to begin the tests and had positioned itself about five kilometres off Bettyhill when the team suddenly realised the device was not acting as it should do.

“We were running the monitoring from our on-land computer because the Wave Glider sends its data on how it’s doing back via a satellite,” said Jason McIlvenny, who is leading the £1.5 million-plus project called TURNKEY (transforming underutilised renewable natural resource into key energy yields).

“Everything was going fine until the skipper of an Islay fishing boat, which didn’t have the AIS tracking system for boats switched on, came along.

“He was just coming back from fishing in the Moray Firth, saw our device, decided to pick it up and took it all the way to Ullapool.” Mr McIlvenny added: “There are a lot of fragile bits on it and the way he lifted it and dumped it on the deck snapped a lot of things.

“If someone does stumble across it who is not from the area, I suppose we could have the same problem again.

“The funniest part was when we were watching it live using GPS as it tracked across the water and it was doing one to two knots. “Suddenly it started doing 10 knots and took off round Cape Wrath and south.”

As the lead partner on TURNKEY, the ERI has been working with counterparts in Spain, France and Portugal to deliver new research and share marine expertise which will help speed up renewable energy development.

The programme had been mapped out by the Thurso team, contractors RSAqua and platform developers Liquid Robotics and it was felt the ERI’s location next to the Pentland Firth – where some of the strongest wave and tidal conditions can be found – would be perfect.

The aim is to test the gilder’s use at monitoring devices in sites which are too remote to use conventional methods. Made up of a surface float and a submerged propulsion system, it is self-powered to allow long-term remote deployment using solar power and wave propulsion.

One representative from each of ERI’s partners in France, Portugal and Spain came to observe the tests. Scheduled to run for four weeks, they were timed to coincide with satellite overpasses, the first of which generated some interesting data.

“The potential to replace numerous scientific instruments which are routinely deployed for data collection, with one cost-effective sensor platform is extremely exciting,” said Mr McIlvenny.

The glider carries shipping safety aids such as AIS, strobe light and radar to alert nearby traffic, and prior notice of its deployment was given.

But despite these precautions, the test was inadvertently cut short. The glider is currently undergoing repairs with the tests scheduled to resume early next year.

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