A floating laboratory on its way out into the fjord. The equipment will be a key part of OceanLab and will provide us with new and better knowledge about environmental changes in the ocean and new sensor technology.

Norway now has a floating ocean laboratory

The OceanLab will contribute to research on underwater robotics, aquaculture, autonomous shipping and environmental research.

Marine research: just off the small island of Munkholmen, outside the city Trondheim, the first of two observation buoys is now installed to collect data from the fjord. With a diameter of five meters and a yellow colour, the buoy is easy to spot from land. The buoys will be powered primarily by wind and solar, and don’t need to be permanently manned.

“It is probably an understatement to call this a buoy. A floating laboratory would probably be a better description,” says SINTEF researcher Emlyn Davies.

He is a marine scientist and has helped to develop some of the equipment that will be undertaking continuous measurements of marine environmental data. The research buoy will be important for testing ocean sensor technology, the education of future marine scientists, and establishing long-term data on the status of the environment in the fjord.

The information from the buoys will be used for increasing environmental understanding and for developing and updating models. Ocean models can forecast things like current conditions and algae blooms, but more knowledge is needed in order to further develop them.

The floating laboratory will also contribute to making local environmental policy more knowledge-based.

Important part of 'OceanLab'

The second buoy, which has a diameter of about two metres, will be located outside Ingdalen in the municipality of Orkland.

Both buoys are part of OceanLab, which will host one of the world’s most advanced array of data collection platforms for marine research.

According to Davies, OceanLab is a new and state-of-the-art national research infrastructure that is being established in Trondheim. It is a collaborative venture between SINTEF and NTNU, funded by the Research Council of Norway. OceanLab will contribute to research on underwater robotics, aquaculture, autonomous shipping and environmental research. The observation buoys are particularly important for increasing understanding of the environment in the fjord.

Providing real-time data for everyone

The data collected will be made available in real time on a digital platform for anyone who is interested.

“As we gradually develop new ways of utilising resources in the ocean, we also have an increasing need to collect data. This is important in order to develop good ocean models that can predict the impact of developments – something which is also one of the goals of the UN Ocean Decade. This will provide us with more knowledge about the consequences of what we do. One example of this is the increasing interest in harvesting more of the smallest organisms found in the sea, such as Calanus finmarchius and krill. The data we collect will provide a better understanding of how these affect the environment,” says Davies.

Collecting large amounts of marine research data

The buoy off Munkholmen will collect data on everything that happens close to it, such as the weather, waves, current and temperature, and it is specially equipped to monitor underwater life.

It will have a range of features, including particle imaging, acoustic communication and a plug-and-play interface for customised sensors. In practice, this means that researchers can add and remove sensors as required. The floating lab will also have equipment that can take photos of organisms that are invisible to the human eye, such as phytoplankton.

“By looking at the kind of plankton here, what it looks like and how it changes during the course of the season, we will be able to see, for example, how the River Nid affects the ecosystem in the fjord. With climate change we are seeing more extreme weather with heavy rain that carries water from the land and out to the ocean. When sediment enters the fjord it blocks the light. One of the effects is that it prevents algae from growing, which in turn results in a reduction in the food available for organisms and lowers oxygen production. To understand these kinds of changes and their consequences, we need to collect environmental data over the longer-term,” says Davies.

Nano-level marine research

One of the most advanced instruments on the buoy is called CytoSub. This equipment creates on-site images by lowering an instrument called a flow cytometer, which produces microscope images and fluorescence signatures of particles and plankton right down to nano-level.

The reason is that phytoplankton are critical organisms for ocean ecosystems. Phytoplankton produce about 50 per cent of the world’s oxygen. They also harness energy from sunlight which scientists can measure by using light sensors. The plankton is also a primary source of food that in turn is eaten by larger organisms.

Heart in mouth: here one of the research buoys is being loaded onto the tugboat.

No random placement

The position of the buoy at Munkholmen has been calculated by using a 3D model developed by SINTEF called SINMOD. This model system connects and simulates physical and biological processes in the ocean. According to SINMOD the selected point is representative of much of the fjord.

“Even if the data is only collected in one place, what is happening in Trondheim Fjord may be representative of ocean conditions elsewhere in the world. For example, if the sediment darkens the water and has an impact on nature, then that knowledge is transferable to other coastal areas,” says Davies.

Easily accessible test station

The two buoys will also facilitate the development of sensor technology.

“They will serve as a platform that can support faster technology development and prototyping of new sensors, as well as comparisons of different sensors that measure the same thing in different ways. Here we can test new technology while it is being developed,” says Davies.

Testing this type of technology is often both costly and time-consuming, but here the researchers and tech companies will only be a few hundred meters away.

“We can get here in minutes, plug in what we want to test and obtain the data very quickly,” says Davies.

Creating power for own consumption

SINTEF Ocean has acquired the buoy from the British company Hydrosphere, which has supplied the buoy in accordance with a design developed by Mobilis in France. They have developed the buoy specifically for OceanLab.

“This is the largest buoy we have developed so far. It has four chambers for sensors and measuring equipment and it has also been adapted for power generation using solar cells, wind cells and spare fuel cells so that it is self-sufficient in electricity – even in winter,” says John Caskey of Hydrosphere.

This is OceanLab/Fjordlab

OceanLab/FjordLab is a full-scale field laboratory for research, development and innovation in marine technology and science. Its infrastructure is concentrated around three ocean and fjord areas (hubs):Trondheim Fjord, Hitra/Frøya and Ålesund.

These hubs have been fitted with sensors and other e-infrastructure required for full-scale testing. Such full-scale tests allow us to see the full picture relating to ocean operations over a long period of time. OceanLab/FjordLab is part of the Ocean Space Centre.

One of the most important initiatives in OceanLab, which includes hubs for autonomous ships, aquaculture and underwater robotics, is to support the blue/green shift with knowledge. The observatory hub will be a platform for the rapid development and prototyping of sensors and marine technology.

This will provide users with easy and rapid access to test facilities and telemetry-linked digital infrastructure, and several hundred meters of water depth. During the 10-year operational period of the infrastructure, the goal is to support new innovations, as well as testing and verification of various ocean-based technology concepts.

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