Training engineers to preserve the environment



A new £2.5m Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) will incorporate Heriot-Watt’s expertise to train an up and coming generation of postgraduates in how to develop robots to preserve the environment.

We will be involved in the training of these experts to support development of the science and the protection of the environment.
Professor David Lane

The new NERC-EPSRC CDT in the use of smart and autonomous observation systems (SAOS) for the environmental sciences will be called ‘NEXt generation Unmanned System Science’  and will provide specialised training in this increasingly vital area, creating a community of highly skilled people whose expertise will contribute both to scientific breakthroughs and to economic growth.

The NEXUSS consortium will be led by the University of Southampton, in partnership with Heriot-Watt, the British Antarctic Survey, the National Oceanography Centre, the Scottish Association for Marine Science and the University of East Anglia.

Innovative sensor platforms such as drones and autonomous robotic submarines are playing an increasingly important role across the environmental sciences, carrying out tasks that range from monitoring air pollution and tracking changes in polar ice to exploring the deep ocean.

Benefits and opportunities

Autonomous systems can cover vast areas and stay in place for long periods and they are already letting scientists gather far more high-quality data than ever before. They can also be sent to places traditionally considered too difficult or dangerous for humans to work, potentially opening up whole new fields of inquiry, such as follow transient environmental phenomena in the ocean, similar to underwater weather fronts.

Professor David Lane, Professor of Autonomous Systems Engineering at Heriot-Watt, has developed autonomous systems which support the oil industry in the challenging conditions of the North Sea oilfields. He stresses that they have potential uses in sectors such as renewable energy, deep-sea mining, farming and aquaculture or, for example, using drones to map flood zones from the air so that homes and businesses can be better protected. The secret, he says, is to train up a new generation of specialists to ensure that the UK maintains an edge in this rapidly developing field.

“The next generation of environmental scientists will need a wide range of skills to take advantage of these opportunities. Heriot-Watt has a proven record of expertise in the field of smart and autonomous observation systems and of working in partnership to develop this expertise.

“I am delighted that, with the backing of NERC and the EPSRC, we will be involved in the training of these up-and-coming experts to support development of the science and the protection of the environment.”