Military and Strategic Journal
Issued by the Directorate of Morale Guidance at the General Command of the Armed Forces
United Arab Emirates
Founded in August 1971

2021-11-03

MBZIRC Encourages Innovation in Maritime Industry

The Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge (MBZIRC) aims to be one of the world’s largest international robotics competitions, says Dr Arthur Morrish, Chief Executive of ASPIRE. In an interview with s, he highlights how the Challenge aims to inspire the development of solutions in autonomous robotic aerial and surface vehicle technologies, especially in the maritime industry. Excerpts:
 
What is the focus of the MBZIRC Maritime Grand Challenge?
The MBZIRC Maritime Grand Challenge seeks to push the boundaries of autonomous systems to find real-time solutions to maritime-security challenges facing the world, including piracy, smuggling and illegal fishing.
The competition also aims to explore unchartered territory in maritime robotics by involving a first-of-its-kind heterogeneous collaboration among unmanned surface and aerial vehicles in a GNSS-denied environment.
 
The MBZIRC Maritime Grand Challenge seeks to stimulate the UAE’s knowledge economy while reinforcing Abu Dhabi and the UAE’s role as an emerging hub of advanced technological innovation, including in the field of safety and security, and in pioneering innovative solutions in a collaborative manner to solve some of the world’s critical challenges.
 
What will be the criteria for selecting the winners?
The MBZIRC Maritime Grand Challenge will follow a three-phase selection process. First, in the white paper phase, each participating team is required to submit a white paper by 30 December, describing the team; the background in swarm robotics; computer vision; simultaneous localisation and mapping; marine vehicle expertise, communications capabilities, and the technical approach to be used in solving the Challenge.
 
Next, in the simulation phase, the participating teams will be required to complete inspection and intervention tasks in simulation. In August 2022, this phase will see the shortlisting of the five finalist teams.
Teams will also need to submit proof-of-concept videos on the different sub-components of their system and demonstrate the feasibility of the approach used. The proof videos should cover the critical components of the Challenge, including multi-UAV search and inspection of large representative structures; intra-swarm communication and collective decision-making; and collective transportation of objects between the large structure and the home location.
 
In the demonstration phase that takes place in June 2023, teams will prove their system capabilities. Evaluation will be based on the total time required to complete the inspection and intervention tasks. This phase includes inspection, ID, and manipulation subtasks, with a maximum mission completion time and the fewest errors as the scoring criteria.
 
What are some of the challenges faced by the maritime industry that innovation can solve?
The maritime industry faces a multitude of challenges that have far-reaching consequences. Foremost of these challenges are piracy, illegal fishing, smuggling and coastline security.
Smuggling and piracy have a devasting impact on the maritime economy, causing serve disruption to the transportation of goods, tourism, and fishing, as well as spiking insurance premiums and shipping costs. Until now, there are very few measures that can be taken unilaterally by shipping companies apart from having armed private security on board, which is nevertheless a costly affair and not without dangers.
 
Likewise, illegal fishing has wide-ranging economic and social costs as it diverts revenue from legitimate, often developing, regions driving the fisherman to alternative means, such as piracy. It also diminishes a food source for dependent coastal societies and threatens the sustainability of fish stocks.
 
However, policing our waters is a challenge in itself, with the ocean vast and the resources often limited. This is where innovation comes into its own. The smart deployment of technology has made seemingly insurmountable challenges achievable, enhancing all kinds of safety and security. Yet, there are areas in which technology has fallen short, such as autonomous identification, where the authorities are still one step behind the criminals.
 
The MBZIRC Maritime Grand Challenge aims to address this gap in technology. The challenge will involve heterogeneous collaboration between unmanned aerial and surface vehicles, requiring them to perform complex navigation, identification, and manipulation tasks in a global navigation satellite system (GNSS)-denied environment. Such innovation can not only help reduce operational costs through enhanced speed and efficiency but also effectively handle some of the often-dangerous tasks performed by humans minimising the risk to life.
 
Are there any specific technologies that could be a game-changer in maritime operations?
The future of unmanned systems is exciting; however, marine robotics is yet to achieve full autonomy. It continues to rely on the GNSS to communicate location, which limits its ability as an autonomous system.
The MBZIRC Maritime Grand Challenge seeks to address this gap in technology with entrants required to create a heterogeneous collaboration between UAVs and USVs, requiring them to perform complex navigation and manipulation tasks in a GNSS-denied marine environment. Smart technology such as this one could be a gamechanger.
 
Why have you chosen to focus on the maritime industry?
The shipping industry is the engine of the global economy, with about 90 per cent of traded goods transported on ships. Without maritime security, the open seas would look more like the Wild West. Global economies would be handicapped, workers would be unable to do their jobs, livelihoods of those reliant on fishing will be jeopardised, and the shipping industry would be chronically unable to operate at full capacity.
For countries with long coastlines, ensuring maritime safety can be additionally challenging as it requires significant investment in sophisticated equipment and highly trained personnel. The MBZIRC is looking to change that and develop innovative solutions to some of the shipping industry’s biggest challenges.
 

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