Mechanical eyes are ready to watch Southeast Asia’s weather systems

Unmanned surface vessels could become an important tool in collecting data to model and forecast Southeast Asia’s changing climate

Troy Kippen
April 19, 2022
Mechanical eyes are ready to watch Southeast Asia’s weather systems
A man rides his motorcycle through floodwaters in Batu Berendam in Malaysia's southern coastal state of Malacca. Oceanographer Ruth Patterson of Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Australia believes unmanned surface vessels could provide critical data to model and forecast extreme weather events in Southeast Asia. Photo: Nazrul Had Hashim/AFP

A fleet of unmanned surface vessels numbering in the hundreds could be a key tool in helping Southeast Asia countries adapt and prepare for an increase in the frequency of severe weather.

Oceanographer Ruth Patterson of Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Australia, believes unmanned surface vessels (USVs) are the technology breakthrough needed to collect data to better model and forecast weather events in Southeast Asia.

Models created from the data collected with USVs could help communities in the region plan and prepare for extreme weather events, which are predicted to worsen due to a rapidly changing climate.

“The economies of Southeast Asia and northern Australia have not been geared towards the scientific collection of data, so there is very little data available about the oceans around Southeast Asia that directly impacts its weather,” said Patterson, a Ph.D. candidate whose research focuses on remote oceanography and data collection. 

“We have models, but the data that supports these models is limited. It makes any reliable modelling of extreme weather events extremely difficult,” she said.

Extreme weather events can have an exorbitant cost for countries in Southeast Asia because of a lack of resilient infrastructure, millions of people living in low lying regions susceptible to flooding and the sheer amount of exposed coastline, she said.

Hurricane Rai slammed into the Philippines as a Category 5 system in December 2021. There were sustained winds of 195 kilometres per hour (121 miles per hour) by the time the storm came ashore in Siargao. About 100,000 people evacuated before the storm crossed the coastline, but the extreme weather event claimed the lives of more than 400 people. 

Storms of the severity of Hurricane Rai in Southeast Asia do not just have a high human cost.

At around the same time Hurricane Rai hit the Philippines, severe storms and flooding forced the closure of Southeast Asia’s second largest port in Malaysia, which affected the supply of semiconductors across the globe. 

Having more precise modelling of weather systems will help communities and governments establish better plans and recover quickly from severe storms, Patterson said.

“Southeast Asia is known as the maritime continent, and it’s so complex,”  Patterson said.

Charles Darwin University Ph.D. candidate Ruth Patterson believes unmanned surface vessels (USVs) can be a key tool in understanding the oceanography of Southeast Asia. The subsequent research could benefit governments, industry and scientists. Photo: supplied

USVs measure the exchange of moisture and gas between the ocean’s surface and the atmosphere, known as the air-sea flux, Patterson said.

“This flux can only be measured from a few centimetres to a few metres above the ocean’s surface, so it’s almost impossible for drones to do it, and satellite observations only produce coarse estimates,” Patterson explained.

The two major atmospheric phenomena delivering moisture and gas to and from the ocean are the Madden-Julian Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole, but they are not understood well enough to reliably predict the weather events caused by their movements.

“Right now, there are not enough monitoring stations to provide regular and reliable data on their two systems,” Patterson said. Information about the two systems is important because their interaction is responsible for the pulses of extreme weather and heavy rain over Southeast Asia during monsoon season.

USVs remove the barrier of cost and safety from data collection in remote ocean areas, while also being robust enough to stay in the water for long periods of time and in varying conditions, Patterson said.

Piloting an USV through a hurricane shows the potential of the vessels to go where no one else can”

Ruth Patterson, Oceanographer, Charles Darwin University in Darwin

The value of USVs was highlighted in 2021 when a team from the United States designed an unmanned vessel to sail through the eye of a hurricane and successfully completed a voyage through Hurricane Sam as the storm approached the Caribbean in September, collecting data the world had not seen before.

“That’s a game changer… that’s exciting. Piloting an USV through a hurricane shows the potential of the vessels to go where no one else can,” Patterson said. “Imagine what we could learn from hurricanes in Southeast Asia, where there has been little data collected before.”

While USVs are being tested in extreme weather such as hurricanes, Patterson has focused her tests on the durability of USVs to remain on the water permanently collecting data, observing the ocean and protecting marine environments and equipment.

The accumulation of organic materials such as shellfish and seaweeds, known as fouling the hull, ultimately can sink the boats. 

“These are wind and solar powered platforms that deliver data to scientists every minute, the only reason they would stop would be because of fouling on the hull, but that takes many months,” she said.

Despite the advantages USVs offer in monitoring and collecting data to use in weather modelling, adopting the technology for research faces challenges.

Patterson’s research, published in the January 2022 edition of the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, investigated why USVs were not being adopted for research and surveillance, considering aerial drones were becoming increasingly popular.

One barrier to establishing USVs as a normalised, ocean-observing platform is the mismatch between available USV models and the needs of those who might use them, including defence, scientific and maritime industries. 

“To observe the ocean, globally, we use techniques as radical as animals fitted with tracking devices and underwater gliders, but USVs are not officially recognised in the global ocean observing system yet,” Patterson said. 

She added that there are few USVs on the market “suitable for continuous voyage and capable of surviving rugged ocean conditions.”

Another key barrier in the adoption of USVs is that most models require researchers to collect the vessels and then download the data, which increases costs.  

“Right now, most USVs need to be remote controlled in sight of the operator, or launched from a mothership, which is a step in the right direction, but isn’t really disruptive technology,” she said. “USVs will be valued most in very remote locations where they can be controlled using the internet and launched from dirt boat ramps or the beach.”

When commercial USV manufacturers and industries and organisations eventually team up to drastically increase the coverage and lower costs of ocean observation, Patterson predicts there will be a spike in the use of USVs.

At that point, her research vision of cost effective solutions for data monitoring on Southeast Asia’s remote ocean surfaces can be realised.

Troy Kippen is a scientific communications professional and writer working for Charles Darwin University in Australia.

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