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Sonar tech to monitor UK marine energy systems

Technology to measure effects could help improve wave and tidal designs

Technology will check the effects of marine energy on birds and other wildlife
Technology will check the effects of marine energy on birds and other wildlife

Sonar technology is being used to monitor marine energy devices in the UK. The National Oceanography Centre (NOC) team in Southampton is using sonar systems for the first time to monitor wave and tidal machines and determine the effects installations have on the environment.

Sonar systems are being fitted on the seabed close to marine energy devices. Installing the systems, which is part of the NOC’s latest project, FLOWBEC, could help improve future wave and tidal system designs to prevent any effects the technology has on marine and wildlife.  

Dr Paul Bell, a marine physicist at the NOC, who is leading the project, said: “If there are effects, they could be beneficial to wildlife - but if any are negative, our research may suggest ways of avoiding them in future designs.”

The project brings together scientists from a range of UK universities and organisations, including the Universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Exeter, OpenHydro turbine manufacturer, and the British Oceanographic Data Centre. 

Two sonar systems combined on a seabed frame have been placed 25m from one of UK firm OpenHydro’s marine energy systems, which has been deployed at a test site in Orkney. This will monitor fish and diving seabirds that pass through or feed within the location; in particular, the study is assessing how fish and seabirds interact with the installation. By understanding behavioural preferences, the projects aims to understand how changes to water flow, and turbulence introduced might affect the various types of marine wildlife. 

Further studies will follow at the WaveHub site, which is a grid-connected offshore facility in South West England to test large scale wave and tidal technologies. The sonar system will also monitor marine energy devices at Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. 

Sonar devices are normally mounted on ships looking down, but these sonar systems are the first devices to be installed “facing upwards”. 

NOC said: “Collecting the data in this way allows imaging of a full “acoustic curtain” along the tidal flow and around the turbine in a highly challenging environment.”

Dr Beth Scott, senior lecturer in marine ecology at the University of Aberdeen, said: “It is an amazing feat of collaboration, involving such a wide range of expertise, that has allowed us to produce and successfully deploy the combined type of instruments that will finally start to provide the ecological information so badly needed by the marine renewables industry.”