High-tech from Bremen saves whales

Optimum protection for whales by modern detection and alert system

Rheinmetall Electronics and the Alfred Wegener Institute jointly developed an automatic, surveillance, detection and alert system to protect whales. This entirely passive system is designed to minimise the detrimental impact of seismic offshore projects on marine mammals, and particularly whales.

Marine biologists and other scientists are increasingly expressing concern regarding the dramatic increase in loud underwater noises. These occur in particular when exploring for energy reserves (gas/petroleum). However, the heightened noise level has a negative impact on marine fauna in both the short and long term, as most marine mammals and many fish species depend on water-borne sound for communication, food-finding and navigation.

Consequently, many national regulators have already developed standard requirements for protecting marine mammals. For instance, systems such as air guns may only be used when no marine mammals have been sighted within a defined exclusion zone around the ship for at least 30 minutes prior to use of the device. If they should approach the ship in this zone at any time during use, the systems must be shut down immediately.

Old methods are inadequate

However, the currently mandated actions do not ensure absolute protection for the whales and other marine wildlife, as detection is based solely on visual sightings of whale blows by special Marine Mammal Observers (MMO's), and it is not possible to completely and continuously scan the entire area around the vessel. Additionally, some whale species only surface to breathe at relatively long intervals. Therefore, these need to be detected as early as possible at the greatest possible range. The economic aspect is also significant. A months-long cruise of a research ship ordered by an oil company costs several hundred thousand dollars per day. Whale observation can only be carried out during daylight. Consequently, air guns cannot be used at night, which severely impairs the efficient deployment of research ships. A further problem emerges on cruises of several months duration. Due to the monotonous and fatiguing nature of the task, large teams of MMO's are required so that they can relieve each other at regular intervals. This in turn incurs significant costs.

High-tech solution affords optimum protection

Rheinmetall Bremen and the Alfred Wegener Institute have jointly developed the Automatic Infrared-based Marine Mammal Mitigation System (AIMMMS), an automatic, surveillance, detection and alert system to protect whales and other marine mammals; this system has already been used for research purposes for many years aboard the research vessel Polarstern. Equipped with a special software, this entirely passive system is designed to minimise the detrimental impact of seismic offshore projects on marine mammals, and particularly whales. AIMMMS enables a 360° full-circle surveillance with an unparalleled scanning rate as well as simultaneous and automatic detection and continuous 360° panoramic display of a variety of events. This means that whale blows can be imaged and evaluated in real time within the 360° video panorama image. The system updates the entire panorama image five times per second. This functionality makes it possible to detect and visualise whale blows also at great distances, which are visible only for fractions of a second.

The evaluated results from deployment of the AIMMMS system are overwhelming. It is capable of detecting a 2-3 times greater number of whales compared to visual observation. Additionally, the relevant ocean zones can be monitored day and night – 24/7. Besides to the economic aspect, this also makes the work of the MMO's more convenient. The greatest added value of this sophisticated technology is that it represents a major advance with respect to reliable protection of marine mammals in real time.

Author: Andreas Jung, Rheinmetall Electronics GmbH

Commander s.g. (ret./res.) German Navy
Director Sales International Projects
Business Unit Air Defence & Naval Systems

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