• The seven metre-long, one and a half tonne "nupiri muka" is lowered into the water. Credit: AMC Dr Damien Guihen
    The seven metre-long, one and a half tonne "nupiri muka" is lowered into the water. Credit: AMC Dr Damien Guihen

An innovative new autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) capable of diving up to 5,000 metres, operating underneath the ice and gathering data during Antarctic research missions has been unveiled at the University of Tasmania’s Australian Maritime College (AMC).

The $5 million polar vehicle named nupiri muka (Eye of the Sea in the local Aboriginal language) is funded by the Australian Government through the Antarctic Gateway Partnership — a $24 million Special Research Initiative of the Australian Research Council (ARC) that aims to provide new insights into the role of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean in the global climate system.

AMC contributed $3 million to the cost of the vehicle which will be maintained and operated by a team of specialist research and technical staff at AMC’s Autonomous Maritime Systems Laboratory, a new engineering research facility that was also formally opened at the College on Tuesday.

University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Rathjen said the AMC had developed a nationally-recognised strength in specialised research and technologies, such as the design and use of autonomous devices and related capabilities, blended with the University’s expertise in human factors design, robotics and sensing technologies.

“This new facility will advance the signature contributions of the University and its partners to climate sciences, and Antarctic and Southern Ocean research. There are also rich opportunities at AMC for Tasmania to explore the application of these new technologies to modern naval defence, marine biosecurity and cyber marine opportunities, for example.”

The AUV is a vital research tool that will be deployed in the Antarctic by Australian and international researchers, including from the ARC Antarctic Gateway partners the University of Tasmania, CSIRO and the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD).

“This is an ambitious project that has built a world-leading, polar underwater vehicle equipped with new combinations of technologies to answer high priority science questions,” Antarctic Gateway Partnership director Professor Richard Coleman said.

“The development process has built strong technical collaboration between AMC and the AUV manufacturer, International Submarine Engineering (ISE) of Canada. Proven concepts of underwater vehicle design and instrumentation were used, together with innovation in the integration of the operating systems and instrumentation.”

AMC AUV facility coordinator Peter King said the features of the polar underwater robot made it ideal for deployment in challenging, under-ice conditions.

“At nearly seven metres long and weighing one-and-a-half tonnes, nupiri muka's endurance enables it to travel more than 140 kilometres or 24 hours without needing to be recharged. It’s also highly customisable, such that the engineering team can install a range of instruments in addition to those already on board,” King said.

“nupiri muka completed its first set of trials in Tasmania this past July. The vehicle performed according to plan, completing several successful dives in the North Tamar. Subsequent longer and deeper trials are planned for coastal Tasmania over the next few months, with the goal of an Antarctic deployment in 2018/19.”

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