OpenROV technician Erika Bergman working with students. Image supplied.

By Ross Verne

SEABED mining is soon to become a world-first reality in Papua New Guinea, but a university project in remote Nago has already given the country its first taste of cutting-edge underwater robotics.

There has been much talk of Nautilus Minerals’ pioneering Solwara 1 project in the Bismarck Sea, but students from the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) recently teamed with US academics and professionals for a two-week robot building course in a first for marine science in PNG.

“This was the first time a course like this has ever been done somewhere as remote as Nago,” deep-sea ecologist and conservation geneticist Andrew Thaler said.

Dr Thaler and other Duke University alumni joined PNGU academics and technicians from OpenROV – the company which built Nautilus’ Solwara 1 underwater robots – to lead 23 students through the basics of marine invertebrate zoology, robotics and marine ecology

“Building six underwater robots from scratch in less than two weeks is challenging, even at OpenROV headquarters in the United States,” Dr Thaler said.

The project led students through the process of building, using and maintaining underwater robots.

“Going a step further, the students learnt to develop ecologic studies based on their own interests that could be carried out using the robots,” Dr Thaler said.

Dr Thaler said despite the challenges presented by the location and the build, the course was a great success.

“On the last day we had six functional underwater robots and the students completed and impressive array of ecologic studies,” he said.

Dr Thaler said OpenROV technicians Erika Bergman and Dominik Fretz were on hand to provide the kind of expertise that had encouraged Nautilus to buy the company’s robots for use on Solwara 1.

“It seems apt that a company using cutting-edge deep-sea robots would sponsor a course on using cutting-edge, though much shallower operating, underwater robots for science,” he said.

The course was designed to convey to students that sophisticated electronics does not need to be intimidating, and that the skills learnt on the course could be applied to other uses.

“One of my favourite moments happened near the end of our first week, when a student who had never used a soldering iron before that week sat down at the electronics bench, opened his broken cell phone, and successfully re-wired it,” Dr Thaler said.

He said to his knowledge it was the first time advanced robotics and marine ecology had been integrated into a single short course anywhere in the world.

“[We used] a hands-on, fieldwork-intensive approach,” Dr Thaler said.

“The course was as much a challenge for us to design and implement as it was for the students to complete.”