NERC and EPSRC announce new Centre for Doctoral Training in smart observation

6 October 2015

NERC and the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) are launching a new £2·5 million Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in the use of smart and autonomous observation systems (SAOS) for the environmental sciences.

The ship RRS Discovery with its autonomous vehicles

RRS Discovery with its fleet of autonomous vehicles.

Known as NEXUSS - 'NEXt generation Unmanned System Science' - the CDT will provide specialised training in this increasingly vital area, creating a community of highly skilled people whose expertise will contribute both to scientific breakthroughs and to economic growth.

The consortium behind NEXUSS is led by the University of Southampton, in partnership with the British Antarctic Survey, Heriot-Watt University, the National Oceanography Centre, the Scottish Association for Marine Science and the University of East Anglia. It will fund training for three annual intakes of ten PhD students each, starting in 2016.

Professor Duncan Wingham, NERC chief executive, said:

"Smart observation systems are an exciting and innovative field in which the UK has world-class capabilities; I am delighted that NERC is investing in the skills needed to maintain this position. We have made major investments in SAOS in recent years, and this CDT will produce the expertise to ensure future researchers can take advantage of these investments, using new technologies to address the environmental challenges we face and support growth across the UK economy."

Professor Philip Nelson EPSRC's chief executive, said:

"Centres for Doctoral Training are extremely popular with students and industry alike as they address real- world challenges and skills needs. EPSRC is pleased to be working with NERC to support the NEXUSS CDT as it will cover areas such as robotics and autonomous systems which are firmly within our remit."

Innovative sensor platforms such as drones and autonomous robotic submarines play an increasingly important role in environmental science, carrying out tasks from monitoring air pollution to exploring the deep ocean.

These systems can cover vast areas and stay in place for long periods; they are already letting scientists gather far more data than ever before. They can also be sent to places traditionally considered too difficult or dangerous for humans to work, potentially opening up whole new fields of inquiry.

The potential applications include sectors such as renewable energy, oil and gas, deep-sea mining, farming and aquaculture. There could also be benefits for policy - for example, using drones to map flood zones from the air so that nearby homes and businesses can be better protected.

The new CDT will provide the next generation of environmental scientists with the necessary skills to develop and deploy ambitious new unmanned systems.

The UK government has identified SAOS as important for the nation's future; the UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) 2020 National Strategy led to £400 million in government funding being earmarked for sectors such as the marine industry, while the 'Eight Great Technologies' initiative recently provided more than £10 million of investment in marine autonomous systems within NERC, which now has the biggest fleet of autonomous vehicles in Europe.

Part of that has funded the National Oceanography Centre's new Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems Innovation Centre, which brings together scientists with the private sector to support the development of new marine robotics technology.

These capital investments have tended to focus on major demonstration projects; the new CDT will complement this with training and capacity-building. It will also go beyond marine science, providing training in other fields including Earth observation and atmospheric monitoring.

Further information

NERC media office
01793 411561