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Conception Bay to become test zone for water drones

The Marine Institute hopes to establish a controlled area in which to test uncrewed marine vessels, like the one pictured. Staff from the Marine Institute hosted a public consultation last week to address questions. From left are Kelley Santos, Richard Kelly, and Bethany Randall. Mark Squibb photo

By Mark Squibb

The Marine Institute is set to establish what it is billing as Canada’s first marine autonomous test zone, in Holyrood, but residents are not without concern.
The Launch, the Marine Institute’s facility in Holyrood, will serve as the home base for the test zone, which would encompass 130 kilometres of bay, stretching from Holyrood to Bell Island.
A marine autonomous test zone is a controlled area for researchers, companies and regulators to test uncrewed marine vehicles in real world conditions both above and below the surface. The zone will provide a chaperoned space to collect data and train staff while also testing the autonomous system for further use.
About a dozen residents came out for an information session hosted by the Marine Institute last Thursday.
“The beauty of this environment is that it’s a real world environment, but it’s controlled, it’s safe, and there’s minimal traffic, and so we have the potential to do a significant amount of research and development here to help us move this technology forward,” explained facility director Kelley Santos.
She explained that autonomous vehicles, also known as unmanned or uncrewed vehicles, can operate on their own without human intervention.
“They’re all shapes and all sizes, and they all have different capabilities and different applications,” said Santos. “They’re all used for different purposes in the ocean.”
The first such test zone was established in 2016 in the Trondheim Fjord in Norway. There are no test zones in Canada. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) only began developing regulations surrounding test zones in 2017, and mandated policy is not expected to be in place until January 2028. In the interim, the federal government has implemented a policy applicable to vehicles less than 12 metres in length.
Santos read through requirements mandated by the federal government surrounding the use of autonomous vessels, including matters of insurance, registration, assessment, and record keeping.
“There’s a lot of fine print, and a lot of information, but all of this is to say that there’s a specific amount of oversight in that policy, and so there’s a lot of different aspects of the policy that we need to adhere to, and there are a lot of things that we have to have in place before we can operate our own autonomous surface vessel here in our water here in Holyrood,” said Santos.
She added that as autonomous vehicle regulations are still in their infancy, test zones are important to help with research to design the regulations.
For the proposed Conception Bay test zone, Santos said the rules of operation will be based on feedback from stakeholders and residents.
“We don’t want to interfere with any current operations, we don’t want to impede anyone, and we don’t want to conflict with anyone,” said Santos.
The Marine Institute is only required to report to certain federal organizations, but regardless would like to keep an open channel of communication with all user groups so that everyone is on the same page about what activities are going on at any given time, she said.
Holyrood resident David Tutton said he liked the presentation, and he liked the idea of autonomous vehicles. All the same, he admitted being concerned about the vessels, particularly the submersibles, as they may have a negative impact on wildlife in the harbour.
“What effect will these submersive autonomy vehicles have?” asked Tutton. “Can they detect these creatures underneath the water, and can they avoid them? Will they cause problems?”
Richard Kelly, an engineer with the facility, said the underwater vessels contain much the same technology as your typical surface vessel, and he didn’t anticipate any negative impact on wildlife.
“Here in Newfoundland, the last couple of years, the government has put in regulations for whale watching boats to keep them from harassing these whales,” said Tutton. “If we have a couple of pods of whales in the bay, and sometimes we have 10 or 12 creatures sitting here for weeks, do you stop operating in that period entirely, or are you going to be out there harassing the whales?”
Engineer Bethany Randell, who credited her love of marine wildlife with kick starting her career in marine technology, said the Institute would absolutely not “harass the whales.”
“When we’re operating our underwater vehicles, I don’t want to be working out there when the whales are there,” said Randell. All told, she didn’t believe the vessels would negatively affect wildlife, intentionally or accidentally.
When asked, Randell said she didn’t believe the vessel’s bright colours, which make them easily visible to manned vessels, would attract the notice of whales and other sea life.
“It’s an incredible location, and I don’t want to see it ruined,” said Tutton. “We’ve got something special here in Holyrood.”
Terry Fleet of the Terra Nova Yacht Club raised concerns about the possible impact on boaters, and asked whether the Marine Institute could hold off operations during events such as yacht races, which the Institute seemed agreeable to.
Fleet also asked what should happen if a recreation boater and an autonomous vessel were to collide.
In the case of a vessel collision, the typical ‘rules of the road’ would apply, as the vessels would be insured the same as any other marine vessel. The larger surface vessel, meanwhile, will be operated by a manned chaperon vessel.
“Yes, the vehicle does have autonomous capabilities to avoid vehicles in the water, however, I’m not going to trust those capabilities until they’ve been very much tested,” said Kelly. “You’re not going to see that vessel going on the water by itself this summer. I’m going to be next to it, making sure it’s operating properly. And it might be a very long time before you ever see it operating autonomously in this harbour. I might chaperone it out past the bay and let it go in open water, but I’m not going to have it driving around unattended for some time.”
Santos added that itineraries need to be submitted to the Coast Guard 48 hours ahead of time, and the Marine Institute is agreeable to sharing those same plans with the club.
Some attendees were surprised to learn the Institute has already been operating submersibles for several years now. A number maintained that when the Marine Institute advertised the notive for the meeting in The Shoreline newspaper and on local radio, it should have specified a larger catchment area than just Holyrood as the proposed test zone stretches as far as Bell Island and impacts residents all along Conception Bay. Marine Institute staff agreed and said that advertising for further sessions would address this concern.
Furthermore, as regulations are mandated by the federal government, municipal town councils, such as in Holyrood, have no say in the use of autonomous vessels. No members of council attended the meeting. However, Holyrood’s chief administrative officer, Marjorie Gibbons, who was present, said the Town does have an open line of communication with the Marine Institute regarding the use of such vehicles.
Following the meeting, several residents hung around to speak with engineering staff, enjoy complimentary coffee, and take a peek at the larger autonomous surface vessel, currently housed deep in the belly of the facility.

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