The CURE project, funded through the FP7 Research Potential programme, aimed to build upon Croatia's maritime expertise and potential. The project began by supporting human and material resources at the University of Zagreb's UNIZG-FER Laboratory for underwater systems and technologies (LABUST), and fostering strategic partnerships with other well-known research centres around Europe.
Project coordinator Zoran Vukic from the University of Zagreb believes that the revitalised Lab can play a vital role in meeting the socio-economic needs of both country and region.
"This project has significantly improved our research potential and our ability to accommodate the needs of Croatia and the whole West Balkan region when it comes to the exploration of underwater systems and technologies," he explains. "Besides revealing the huge potential of underwater robotics, the CURE project has also provided momentum for scientific and commercial applications in the region."
Newly purchased equipment includes an autonomous underwater vehicle with side-scan sonar and acoustic current profiler, and a remotely operated vehicle with a multi-beam sonar camera. "Our equipment is for shallow water use - up to 300 m in depth - and has been bought not only for research purposes but also to accommodate the needs of various stakeholders," says Vukic. "Because of this, we can perform various types of missions for end-users." These include, for example, surveying shipwrecks, exploring underwater vents and filming for educational purposes.
Indeed, some very interesting missions in the Adriatic sea were performed with underwater archaeologists, marine biologists and the Lab's underwater robotics colleagues. "These missions were often very international, and we learned a lot from them," acknowledges Vukic. "Also, those who worked with us were able to quickly identify our capabilities, which I think is one reason why we have since been invited on more joint missions at sea."
Vukic also points out that meeting the requirements of many European Directives relating to the sea and water resources cannot be realised without the use of underwater systems and technologies. "Our laboratory can be of great help here," he says. "Obligations that Croatia will have to meet upon joining the EU - and also as a NATO member - will certainly require our expertise and capabilities."
One of the most innovative aspects of the project was the lab's joint R&D work with the NATO Undersea Research Centre. This involved working on mine countermeasures with autonomous marine vehicles, which remove the need for humans. "Some quite innovative methods were employed, which have not been used elsewhere," says Vukic. "Our role in this project involved navigation, guidance and control of the autonomous underwater vehicle, using only acoustic signals. The results have proved very promising."
The project also focused on the auto-tuning of autopilots for unmanned underwater or surface vehicles. Such research could eventually help operators of remotely operated unmanned underwater vehicles (ROVs) work using only their hearing. "Cloud computing is another hot topic that we want to bring closer to our stakeholders," says Vukic. "This could change how underwater missions are executed, and how data is prepared for reporting."
During the 36 months of the CURE project, the lab has been very active in publishing research results in peer reviewed journals and making presentations at international conferences. "We have been invited to present our work at a number of national and foreign meetings," says Vukic. "The feedback has been promising, and we have often been invited to participate in various project proposals. We were also very satisfied with the media coverage of our work, and are proud of our website where everybody can see what we have accomplished in only 36 months."
Vukic adds that he is delighted that LABUST is now widely recognised as being a vigorous and challenging place for young researchers. "Our highly capable team can accommodate stakeholders' needs and we believe that this will remain so," he says. "Our research will always remain application-oriented, and through this approach we believe we have a good opportunity to become even more successful."