Galway gains major world-leading underwater ocean observatory

11 Aug 2015

Ireland is starting to position itself as a quite the international leader in oceanic research, with Galway Bay’s new underwater observatory the first of its kind in the world.

A collaboration between the Marine Institute, SEAI, Irish Lights, UCC, DCU and SmartBay Ireland finally came to fruition today (11 August), with the official announcement of the €3m ocean energy research facility.

Situated around 1.5km off Spiddal pier, the observatory will be operational in the coming months, with the potential for multi-million euro projects in the Galway Bay area ideal for what’s called one-quarter testing.

That means operators can test equipment or read data in an environment one-quarter comparable to the Atlantic Ocean.

“The observatory opportunities are broad,” explained SEAI’s Declan Meally, who said infrastructure like this is not available anywhere else in the world.

Divers get ready to finish the installation, via Aengus Mc Mahon

Divers get ready to finish the project. Photo: Aengus Mc Mahon

Once fully up and running, for example, it will enable the use of cameras, probes and sensors to permit continuous and remote live underwater monitoring.

There is also a novel mooring tether, which reduces the impact rough seas have on moored devices, thus making them cheaper to design and construct.

It also reduces the need for excessive ropes and chains for moorings, which reduces impact on the seabed and the environment.

The three-year project’s crowning glory is the installation of transmitting cables underwater, which will bring the swathes of data into the Marine Institute where analysis will take place.

It also means Galway is set for an economic boon, with marine research and the marine industry set to grow, fast.

Crew deploy cables, via Aengus McMahon

The crew deploy cables. Photo:  Aengus McMahon

“It is set to explode,” explained Meally, “Ireland is certainly leading in terms of the development around the ocean energy area.

“But the more we get into this field the more we realise that it’s not going to crack it alone, it’s going to need the help of the aquaculture industry, other people that would have worked in the marine industry for years with knowledge of cabling, moorings, vessels, how they stand up to the elements.

“It’s an area that we know so little about at the moment.”

Last year, all the groups involved in ocean energy in Ireland got together and set up the portal, with dozens of stakeholders brought to one place.

Marine energy

The final piece of the jigsaw. Photo: Aengus McMahon

Because Ireland is so small, this is possible, and has brought more interested parties into the country. And this can mean big money. Massive money, actually.

“It starts by building as you go,” said Meally, who points out how testing in wave energy at one-fiftieth the scale of the Atlantic Ocean can cost up to €50,000 in Cork’s testing tanks.

From there businesses go to one twenty-fifth scale , then one-fifteenth scale before they start considering a voyage into the ocean for sterner challenges. This, explained Meally, is where the money is.

“Going into Galway Bay to test at one-quarter scale is [worth]  €1-€2m,” he said. “That is building a small craft, built and assembled locally, installed locally using local boats. A lot of the money would be going into the local economy.”

From there, though, people need to ratchet up their testing, which is why a full-scale facility in Mayo is on the cards. There, according to Meally, companies can spend anything up to €100m on a single device.

The industry, so, has the potential to skyrocket, with Ireland’s role key, but not unique.

“We can’t do this alone,” said Meally. “We are looking at working with Scotland and France. By collaborating, that’s the big opportunity. When expertise is in one location it becomes a smart bay. That’s where it’s going.”

Ireland is set to go there too, with 10,000 jobs expected to be created in the marine economy in just a few years’ time.

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic