Oceans: The Final Frontier

In the quest to tap into a hidden wealth of resources, underwater research is heating up for partners across Europe.

This project has an important educational role in informing society of humanity’s effect on this fragile environment. “This project has an important educational role in informing society of humanity’s effect on this fragile environment.”

Europe’s deep-ocean margin stretches over a distance of 15 000 km along the Atlantic Ocean from the Arctic to the Iberian margin and from western to eastern Mediterranean, and to the Black Sea. Vast and complex, this frontier contains an abundance of biological, energy, and mineral resources – which the EU aims to develop. First, it must find out more about the structure and dynamics of the ocean margin ecosystems, which are vulnerable to over-exploitation and pollution. In 2005, 45 partners from 15 European countries joined forces to launch the Hotspot Ecosystem Research on the Margins of European Seas (HERMES) project. Coordinating efforts along the whole European margin, HERMES aims to study ‘hotspot’ ecosystems – exciting environments full of unknown species. With small businesses making up nine of the consortium’s members, Jordi Teixidor from the technological SME, Praesentis, explains his company’s role.

How is Praesentis contributing to the HERMES project?

Praesentis is basically involved in system integration and the development of submersible platforms that can go to a depth of 500 m. Our platforms capture images, as well as geophysical and chemical data, and we have systems to analyse this. We are thus focused on the development of submarine telepresence – remote-controlled robotic sensors – working in an underwater environment.

We are also developing new systems: a number of different vehicles of varying complexity, from small remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to a dredge submarine. Alongside this, we are also developing our analysis capabilities.

Has your company taken part in any HERMES expeditions?

Yes, we have been involved with one of our standard products, Bleeper EVO, in search-and-locate campaigns off the Spanish coast. So far, we have been looking for coldwater coral at a depth of 130m to 150 m. HERMES is basically a group of small projects doing the same thing in different locations, which will together create a map of Europe’s deep-sea frontier.

How much involvement do you have with the international HERMES network?

Obviously we get involved during the expeditions but, at the level of system development, we are basically engaged with the local partners here in Spain. Most of the expeditions are about systems-testing off the nearby coastline since we have some large underwater canyons in the region.

What is your impression of the project up to now?

I believe it is one of the best-organised projects we have ever been involved in. The project coordination by the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton (UK) is excellent. This goes as much for support as for development. It is a very complex job to coordinate between 30 and 40 research centres at the same time and they are doing an impeccable job.

Does the project face any particular challenges?

It is true that the project is very big, and investigating sea depths requires a lot of sophisticated resources. For example, there are hardly enough oceanographic boats in Spain – or in Europe for that matter – that can meet the demand that has now been created by HERMES. The sea is enormous, so mapping out even this small part is proving to be a challenge. If we manage to map out the whole European seaboard it will become a reference point around the world.

We also think the project could be better publicised. It has an important educational role in informing society of humanity’s effect on this fragile environment. In Spain, for example, there is little awareness of the sea – it is basically about going to the beach and meeting friends. Yet the sea is full of life and we need to know more about it before that life disappears. There are already some awful ‘dead zones’ that have been created, the result of pollution and overfishing. We hope in some small way to contribute to raising awareness, by creating telepresence systems that allow a better understanding of the underwater environment.

What support has HERMES provided to Praesentis as an SME?

Of course we receive institutional support, although as a hi-tech company our participation is not about raising our R&D. The project is not, strictly speaking, a profitable venture for our company, because the budgetary contribution is only a small part of the costs needed in developing our systems. Most of the HERMES budget goes to the research centres, and for those SMEs like us involved in developing technological platforms, the allocation is rather minor and does not cover the development costs. Instead, the major advantage for us has been building relationships with different partners across Europe – major players in oceanographic research who could, in the future, be potential clients for our products. Above all, the association with such a project gives us a lot of prestige. This project is very ambitious in scope and it is a pleasure to be involved.