New device to help offshore energy firms detect dolphins makes waves

The PAMBuoy has been developed to detect mammals such as dolphins
The PAMBuoy has been developed to detect mammals such as dolphins
Share this article
Have your say

A SPIN-OUT company from 
St Andrews University will launch a device this week to let renewable energy companies monitor whales, dolphins and other marine mammals around their offshore projects.

The PAMBuoy “listens” for noises made by sea mammals and transmits the information to mobile phones, tablet computers or other devices on shore, alerting developers to the presence of creatures around their machines.

The device can tell the difference between a range of underwater sounds, including the echo-location “clicks” made by harbour porpoises, “whistles” emitted by dolphins or the low-frequency “moans” that come from blue whales.

Gordon Hastie, a marine mammal scientist who assisted the team developing the device, said: “Technology like PAMBuoy is gold dust to offshore wind farm developers, who seek to minimise impacts on marine life during their developments of greener energy production.”

Experts said the device will be invaluable for environmental impact assessments, which look at the activities of marine mammals around proposed developments for wind farms and sites for wave and tidal machines.

Scottish Enterprise estimates that the offshore wind industry will deliver 28,000 jobs by 2020, contributing £7.1 billion of investment to the economy.

Scotland has 25 per cent of Europe’s offshore wind resources and could meet 40 per cent of the UK’s energy needs from wave, tidal and offshore wind developments, experts believe.

The company is also targeting oil and gas companies, environmental regulators and other academics carrying out underwater research for sales of the device.

The PAMBuoy was developed by SMRU Limited, a spin-out from the university’s world-­renowned Sea Mammal Research Unit, and is being built by Marine Instrumentation.

The company was founded in 2006 and now employs 12 scientists, with offices in Canada, Hong Kong, the United States and Uruguay, to cope with demand for its services.

Any profits from SMRU – which received more than £100,000 in grants from Scottish Enterprise to help develop the technology – are pumped back into the university.

Initial testing for the device took place in May 2011 in St Andrews Bay, where dolphins were detected at night. Further tests were carried out at the Lime Kiln Point State Park lighthouse on San Juan Island, off the coast of Seattle, where the device was used to monitor orcas, or killer whales.

The buoy will go on show in St Andrews on Thursday and has already received its first order, from an engineering consultancy firm in Australia. Work is now under way to mount the PAMBuoy technology on “Wave Glider”, a device made by American company Liquid Robotics that can follow fishing boats.

Ian Boyd – a former director for the Sea Mammal Research Unit and now chief scientific advisor at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – was a founding director of SMRU Ltd. He said: “We are delighted to see fundamental research from the University of St Andrews producing this very practical instrument.

“Cracking the problem of how to detect these animals reliably has taken many years. Efforts continue to develop the statistical methods that will result in estimates of marine mammal population size from the emerging data.”