Virtual and physical testing of underwater technology

Digital Ocean Lab

An important milestone for the Ocean Technology Campus in Rostock: The Digital Ocean Lab, an underwater testing environment for marine technology in the Baltic Sea, commenced operation in 2021.

Fraunhofer IGD and its partners use the Digital Ocean Lab for a variety of underwater tests. The in situ laboratory comprises a designated marine-protected area around an artificial reef off the coast of Nienhagen, plus an existing above-water research platform. In the future, the underwater laboratory is to be expanded to include further areas in the Baltic. In addition, a digital 3D model of the environment enables time-saving simulations prior to physical testing.


Advanced technology and expert advice

The Digital Ocean Lab offers the first-ever in situ environment in the Baltic for testing the latest marine technology. The aim is to promote the efficient and eco-friendly use of the world’s oceans. “The Digital Ocean Lab offers unique possibilities. It provides a suitable place for anyone looking to validate their research findings or to test their technology. That might be underwater vehicles, measurement systems or cameras. New materials, and corrosion protection or antifouling systems, can be trialed under real-world conditions. Moreover, we offer scientific support and advice on, for example, which stress tests, sensors and data analytics are the most suitable. Environmental compatibility also plays a pivotal role. We develop tailored test scenarios in line with specific needs and help to secure major advances in marine technology research,” states Head of the Digital Ocean Lab, Dr. Peter Menzel. He is especially proud of the high-resolution multi-beam echo sounder for mobile measurements. This is utilized, for example, to map the position of hazardous wartime ordnance.


Expanding the scope of an established test environment

The artificial reef off the coast of Nienhagen was established 18 years ago. It allows a variety of marine research activities, e.g., related to the fishing industry. A cooperation agreement between the Research Agency for Agriculture and Fisheries of the State of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (LFA)—as the operator of the facility—and Fraunhofer IGD in Rostock, prepared the ground for the newly expanded role. “It was only logical to make use of the existing resources not just for fishing-related and general marine biology research, but for testing new technology. This allows us to achieve synergy and to jointly find new solutions to urgent societal challenges,” explains Gerd-Michael Arndt, Head of the Fisheries Institute at the LFA.


Many test scenarios possible—in situ and virtual

The research platform is equipped with diverse technical resources that form the basis for reliable testing. It is powered by solar and wind energy, making it entirely self-sufficient. There is also dependable internet connectivity. These features are all key to persuading technology providers and research organizations to utilize the underwater facility for their projects. A dedicated engineer maintains the platform, which supports all the most popular types of sensors and survey methods. Via the Ocean Technology Campus’s partner network, Fraunhofer IGD can make use of boats of various sizes to transport equipment for tests and measurements, and can also make them available for partners and customers. In this respect, the Digital Ocean Lab is clearly different from other test facilities. Step by step, the team is using the high-resolution multi-beam echo location data to create a virtual model of the underwater test environment. They also add data captured by sensors, e.g., on water currents, to build an accurate digital twin of the physical laboratory. Consequently, companies and research organizations can test new technologies, such as sensors, by virtual means and simulations, before moving on to the more challenging in situ activities. Moreover, the RISTRA software solution from Fraunhofer IGD allows extremely fast simulations by executing the corresponding calculations on graphics cards (read more about RISTRA here).


Initial tests successfully completed

Tests of many differing types are already being performed at the Digital Ocean Lab. Framework Robotics, a Rostock-based start-up, for instance, is conducting important in situ tests on its 3D-printed framework components for underwater sensors. The Digital Ocean Lab team is also assisting the MiRo-Base project with its real-world tests on a new, modular, remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Fraunhofer’s own Smart Ocean Technologies research group is also taking advantage of the environment. One of its projects entails automatically determining the concentration of microplastics in the world’s oceans. It has placed probes in the Digital Ocean Lab with the aim of developing and testing hardware and software that can detect and analyze this form of pollution. In the future, up to 25 scientists will work across multiple disciplines on pioneering marine technologies in Rostock harbor. To establish the human resources required for research work at the Digital Ocean Lab, the German federal government approved eight million euros of project funding in 2018, with a further five million euros made available by the State of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. During the initial cooperation phase, expected to last two years, the LFA will remain the operator of the area around the artificial reef, and the State of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania will be the owner. Subsequently, it is planned to transfer the infrastructure and usage rights to Fraunhofer IGD.


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