The Role of Robotics in the Assessment and Protection of Marine Ecosystem Services: A Refreshing Look at the Oceans

José Miguel Almeida

  (1)INESC TEC & Porto School of Engineering (ISEP)

Carlos Almeida


Diana Viegas


Guilherme Amaral


Hugo Ferreira


Pedro André Peixoto


Oceans play a key role in society and are extremely important to our well-being and survival. They provide a wide range of essential ecosystem services, like regulating global climate, absorbing a significant amount of carbon dioxide, providing food and marine resources, and harbouring an impressive diversity of marine species. However, the oceans face several challenges, e.g., overfishing, pollution, climate change and the degradation of coastal habitats. Protecting and assessing ocean ecosystem services is crucial to ensure the health of marine ecosystems and the livelihoods of coastal communities. This involves creating marine protected areas, establishing sustainable fishing practices, reducing marine pollution, and promoting the preservation and requalification of coastal habitats. The assessment of ocean ecosystem services allows for an in-depth understanding of the benefits provided by marine ecosystems, facilitating informed decision-making for the sustainable management of marine resources and the preservation of marine biodiversity.

Protecting and assessing ocean ecosystem services is essential to ensure the health and resilience of marine ecosystems, as well as the well-being of human communities that depend on these valuable resources.

This is where robotics comes into play! Robotics plays a crucial role in assessing and preserving marine ecosystems, allowing access to remote and hostile areas that would rather be difficult to access or dangerous for humans. INESC TEC's Centre for Robotics and Autonomous Systems has been developing several types of robotic systems capable of operating in various scenarios with a direct impact on marine ecosystem services.

There are several ocean ecosystem services; in this sense, the robotic applications developed by INESCTEC are also diversified, with applications in different scenarios.

1) Remote monitoring is one of the main focuses of INESC TEC underwater robotics solutions. Underwater robots equipped with advanced sensors can collect real-time data on water quality, temperature, salinity, pH, and other environmental parameters. This data is crucial to understand changes in marine ecosystems while identifying potential threats like ocean pollution or acidification.

In this context, it's important to point out INESC TEC version of the EGIM (EMSO Generic Instrument Module), a system developed by EMSO consortium and optimised by INESC TEC allowing its integration with robotic systems as well as standalone operation. This system is focused on ocean monitoring and observation. The EGIM system is designed to collect data continuously and consistently, from the water column and seabed. The European Multidisciplinary Seafloor and Water Column Observatory (EMSO) aims to implement EGIMs in several underwater observatories in Europe for the collection of standard and quality data. The EGIM consists of a standard set of sensors, which allows its integration into any node of the system of underwater observatories of the EMSO network. One of the objectives of EMSO is the distribution of EGIMs in various ocean locations to collect a set of variables that are measured homogeneously, using the same sensors, hardware, processes, and data format, enabling the use of standard analysis methods and the exchange of data – namely that related to conductivity, temperature, pressure, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, acoustic hydrophone, high-precision pressure, speed and direction of ocean currents. This data supports the Global Ocean Observing System – Essential Ocean Variables, the marine strategy framework directive for assessing environmental status and marine environmental changes.


Another type of device used for ocean monitoring is the TURTLE.

TURTLE(1) is a hybrid robotic lander, capable of remaining on the seabed for long periods of time, moving autonomously and emerging for maintenance operations. This robotic system is also capable of descending and ascending the water column with high energy efficiency, and its autonomous resources allow for reduced operating costs and flexibility.

Figure 2: Turtle III in operation on the seabed off Sesimbra

TURTLE is the first deep-water robotic system fully developed in Portugal, operating since 2015. Since the first version, three newer versions have already been developed: the TURTLE II in 2018, the TURTLE III in 2019 (Figure 2) and the Turtle IV in 2022. The most significant changes were in the variable buoyancy system and batteries, which allowed a significant reduction in weight and size - with the first version weighing about one and a half tons and the most compact 600 kg. These robotic landers can withstand pressure up to 4km deep, with an autonomy that can go up to several months. This type of robotic system is very versatile and can be used for longer periods of time and in different application scenarios: transport and deployment of materials and tools to the seabed; communications and navigation support for underwater systems; ocean observatories; marine biology monitoring; oceanography; seismic and acoustic activity monitoring; port protection; border monitoring and intrusion detection; etc.

2) Other crucial elements to monitoring and evaluating ecosystem services is mapping and cartography, together with the oceans' bathymetric information. Underwater robotics can support the mapping of the seabed, coral reefs, ocean floor and other geographical features. The ROAZ Autonomous Surface Vehicle (ASV) has been operating for more than 20 years, and is mainly used for bathymetry operations up to 100m deep, as well as to support other missions. Concerning the scenarios that require the mapping of deep sea with higher resolution, INESC TEC has developed several Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV), like EVA (figure 4) - which allows the exploration and autonomous mapping of the seabed with high resolution, up to 1500m deep. Unlike ASV, these types of vehicles can navigate close to the seabed, providing them with an extremely detailed observation and mapping capability. These detailed maps are vital to understand the distribution and diversity of marine habitats, as well as to identify sensitive areas that require further preservation.

From another perspective, the Space-Atmosphere-Ocean interaction is also a very important subject to understand the climate and associated changes. The low clouds that extend over large areas over the oceans significantly influence the terrestrial radiative balance and, consequently, the regional and global climate. These processes are complex and involve multiple interactions, including connection between surface flows of heat and humidity, and interactions between clouds, aerosols, and precipitation - which are influenced by the electrical properties of the atmosphere, as well as by interactions between the Earth and the Sun. The understanding of these processes is still very incomplete, partly due to the lack of observations on the ocean, resulting from the difficulty of performing marine measurements in situ. The SAIL project focused on integrating equipment into the NRP Sagres vessel for its circumnavigation expedition in 2020, with a series of sensors dedicated to atmospheric properties (electric field, visibility, ions, and radioactivity) and space-related parameters (GNSS, gamma radiation and irradiance).

3) Biodiversity studies are also crucial to the current assessment of ecosystem resources. Underwater robots can be used to collect biological samples like marine organisms, sediments, and water. These samples allow the analysis of marine biodiversity, the identification of endangered species and the understanding of ecological patterns.

Concerning this area, it's worth highlighting the MarinEye project(2), which focused on the development of an autonomous and integrated marine chemical, physical and biological monitoring system. This system combines high-resolution imaging systems, acoustics, sonar, water filtration systems for DNA collection, and sensors in a modular and compact system that can be deployed on fixed and mobile platforms. Hence, the autonomous monitoring system developed combines a set of technologies capable of providing data that allow an integrated view of the different areas of the ocean (physical, chemical, biological), according to different types of knowledge (from genomics to biogeochemistry and from micro to macro dynamics of communities), synchronised in time and space. The ability to simultaneously monitor biological, chemical, and physical data allows us to answer questions about how organisms interact with their environment and with each other, and how these interactions influence the overall stability of the ecosystem. The integration of an image sensor capable of observing zooplankton and phytoplankton, together with the possibility of simultaneous DNA collection, allows the identification and visual classification of microorganisms with associated DNA information. These features are particularly important to study the organisms that constitute the vast majority of ocean biomass and are at the base of the entire trophic chain - therefore critical to the health of marine ecosystems.

MarinEye also includes a centralised database infrastructure that aggregates all the various data sources (physical, chemical, biological) collected by the different modules. This database powers a data visualisation and summarisation platform that provides synthetic summaries of major system events to simplify data analysis. In addition, the platform also implements several modelling tools to discover unsuspected and useful patterns that may exist in the physicochemical and biological data sets generated. This device will increase knowledge of the oceans, complementing existing ocean observatories by providing new integrative data not currently provided. MarinEye will play an important role in the consolidation of infrastructures dedicated to the observation of the marine environments. The biological sampling component has gathered a great deal of interest from the scientific community. With this in mind, INESC TEC's Centre for Robotics and Autonomous Systems has put in substantial actions to optimise the bio-sampler and DNA collection system.

This innovative bio-sampler and DNA collection solution, integrated into the Marineye system, can also be used as an autonomous sensor: in fixed moorings situations, in ddeployments from small vessels, or integrated with robotic vehicles.

A particularly relevant example of the application of this type of sensors is the study of the impact of climate change on sensitive marine ecosystems like the polar regions. This sensor will be used as early as the summer of 2023, integrated with the underwater robotic vehicle IRIS, namely in biological data collection campaigns in the Arctic Ocean.

IRIS is an AUV that can also be used in remote operation mode. The AUV IRIS, characterised by its small dimensions, combined with the positioning and autonomous navigation, on-board data processing and acoustic and optical sensors, is the ideal vehicle for operations in polar environments. It combines reduced logistical and operational needs with significant data collection cabilities, as well as the transport of specific sensory payloads e.g., the DNA bio-sampler.

Figure 3: Photo credits: Alfredo Martins & André Dias

4) Characterisation and monitoring of vulnerable ecosystems: robots equipped with cameras and sensors can monitor and help characterise areas with vulnerable ecosystems, which must be protected from overfishing or the use of destructive methods. These systems can support decision-makers in implementing fishing legislation and preserving fish stocks. Concerning these processes of monitoring and evaluation of ecosystem services, it’s worth mentioning the campaign carried out with the EVA robot for the evaluation of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VME), in an area with depths between 550 and 640m, off the coast of Sines.

Figure 4: Photo credits: Alfredo Martins & André Dias

4) Characterisation and monitoring of vulnerable ecosystems: robots equipped with cameras and sensors can monitor and help characterise areas with vulnerable ecosystems, which must be protected from overfishing or the use of destructive methods. These systems can support decision-makers in implementing fishing legislation and preserving fish stocks. Concerning these processes of monitoring and evaluation of ecosystem services, it’s worth mentioning the campaign carried out with the EVA robot for the evaluation of vulnerable marine ecosystems (VME), in an area with depths between 550 and 640m, off the coast of Sines.

5) Waste cleaning: the development of underwater robots to detect and remove waste and debris from the oceans, including plastics and other pollutants, is also a solution. This action contributes to the preservation of marine ecosystems and the reduction of the negative impact of pollution.

INESC TEC participated in the NETTAG project, whose main objective is the reduction of fishing gear lost by fishermen, raising that community's awareness of the topic, and creating a technological solution that can be inserted into the fishing nets, enabling location and recovery. Moreover, the project focuses on the development of acoustic tags and a robotic system capable of locating the lost fishing nets.

Also in the field of marine pollution it's worth highlighting the SPILLESS project, which explored the identification and remediation of hydrocarbons in water close to port areas. The project featured a drone that mapped and released bacteria with bioremediation traits, supported by the aforementioned ASV ROAZ.

Figure 5: Marineye system

In conclusion, marine and underwater robotics has proven to be a powerful ally in the protec-tion and preservation of marine ecosystem services. Through the development of underwater robots equipped with advanced sensors and autonomous systems, it is now possible to re-motely monitor marine ecosystems and collect real-time data on various environmental parameters.

Said data is crucial to understand the changes taking place in the oceans, while identifying potential threats like pollution and ocean acidification. In addition, underwater robotics plays a key role in the study of marine biodiversity, enabling exploration of remote and hazardous areas for humans, providing valuable data for the preservation of marine life.

The use of robotics in the evaluation and protection of marine ecosystem services enables a more efficient and precise approach, contributing to informed decision-making and the de-velopment of more effective preservation strategies. With the sustained advancement of ro-botic technology, new solutions and innovations are expected to take place, further advancing the positive impact of marine robotics on the protection and preservation of marine ecosystems.

(1) Eduardo Silva; Alfredo Martins; Jose Miguel Almeida; Hugo Ferreira; Antonio Valente; Mauricio Camilo; Antonio Figueiredo; Claudia Pinheiro. "TURTLE - a robotic autonomous deep-sea lander". 2016.

(2) Martins, Alfredo, et al. "Marineye—a tool for marine monitoring." OCEANS 2016-Shanghai. IEEE, 2016.