The effectiveness of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) for mapping and monitoring the seabed – a novel toolkit for marine management

  • Karen Boswarva

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by UHI)


As the human population continues to rise, so to do pressures on the world’s oceans, by increasing demands for space and resources. This places a greater requirement for the marine environment, including its diverse habitats and ecosystems, to be managed appropriately. Underpinning all marine management is a baseline knowledge of the physical and biological components of the benthic environment. The usual method of obtaining this data is through seabed mapping and sampling. Mapping is relatively widespread, ranging from historically simple tools such as plumb-lining, through to modern and novel technology with remote sensing capabilities. Sampling using imagery and grabs is conducted to “sea-truth” map data and to quantitatively analyse benthic fauna. This data is commonly combined to create habitat maps, which provides a visually appealing account of the marine environment to its many stakeholders. A key limitation to obtaining data is its connection to larger survey vessels, rendering many of the more challenging, remotest and harshest environments throughout our global oceans as unsuitable for traditional habitat mapping; yet due to their locations and their uniqueness, these can often be the environments most in need of protection. Recent advancements in automated technology, specifically Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), has opened up all sorts of exciting possibilities, particularly in the use of this technology for gathering information required to produce habitat maps. However, as it currently stands most AUV technology has not been specifically designed or developed to undertake this kind of research, limiting their uptake as management tools. Moving forward, it is imperative that methodologies using existing AUVs are developed to make use of the current technology, but to also highlight current limitations so that marine managers and research scientists can work with robotic developers to design the next generation of essential management tools. This thesis considered several stages of the management process (seabed mapping, monitoring mobile species, and assessing benthic impacts) aimed specifically for assisting conservation and fisheries managers, whilst also testing the capabilities of an AUV to collect data, often in remote and challenging conditions. It was demonstrated that: AUV data can be used to create habitat maps of the seafloor and generate predictive maps; AUV and ROV technologies can be used as a direct monitoring tool for mobile and commercial species, allowing surveys to be undertaken in hard to access areas; AUVs have the potential to provide support to other research areas (such as passive acoustic telemetry arrays); AUV technology can be used to provide data to identify and monitor numerous impacts on the benthic environments.
The outputs of this research demonstrated overall that marine managers would benefit from a toolbox of AUV techniques. It is recognised that there are gaps and limitations to this technology and would urge developers, marine management, and researchers to work together in order to develop the necessary capabilities in the next generation of underwater automated vehicles.
Date of Award2 Sept 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of the Highlands and Islands
SponsorsNERC & EPSRC
SupervisorJohn Howe (Supervisor), Bhavani Narayanaswamy (Supervisor) & Clive Fox (Supervisor)

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