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The University of Southampton
Southampton Business School

Improved risk management for marine autonomous vehicles

The University of Southampton’s research-based risk models have significantly improved the safety and reliability of marine autonomous systems. This has resulted in direct commercial benefits to a leading UK-based provider of autonomous underwater vehicles, and has made a key contribution to Canada’s geoscience-based submission to the United Nations to extend its continental shelf.


Autonomous surface and underwater vehicles are increasingly being used to explore hazardous or challenging marine environments. Dr Mario Brito and Professor Gwyn Griffiths have developed novel risk models to quantify and manage risk in the operation of these vehicles.

Research challenge

Beginning in 2008, Brito and Griffiths’ research focused on assessing the risk of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) experiencing system failure in polar seas.

Together, they developed a new risk model,  called subjective survival estimator, to determine the probability of an AUV failing during a mapping mission under a glacier. This was based on the history of faults collected during an AUV’s missions in benign environments, expert judgements on the probability of each of these faults leading to AUV loss, and the distances of successful missions.

This body of research underpinned a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) between the University and a leading UAV manufacturer, Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASV) Ltd. The aim of the KTP was to embed a novel risk and reliability management capability within the company’s range of autonomous surface vehicles.

Economic benefit for ASV Ltd

Prior to the start of the KTP in 2015, the majority of ASV’s missions supported Royal Navy target practice and its unmanned vessels were designed to be used for four-hour periods only. ASV used the KTP to translate Southampton’s risk and reliability modelling into innovative risk mitigation strategies to minimise the likelihood of costly premature mission abort.

This was key to ASV meeting its ambitions of breaking into the oil and gas and marine science sectors. By late 2019, 50% of ASV’s missions were being performed in industry settings.

ASV’s engineering director said: “Due to the KTP project led by Dr Brito, we are now able to have confidence that our unmanned vehicle’s safety systems, such as the emergency stop, meet the required safety integrity level. This has facilitated our collaboration with clients in the Oil and Gas and Defence industry.”

The Southampton model has also been applied in vessels developed by high-profile industry partners of ASV, the most notable examples being Thales and Shell, with demonstrable success.

Impact on Canada’s UN application to extend its continental shelf

On 23 May 2019 the Government of Canada, following an 11-year process, made a landmark submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS) to delineate Canada’s extended continental shelf.

Canada provided scientific evidence that its continental shelf extends beyond 200 nautical miles under the sea, laying claim to an addition of 1.2 million square kilometres to its total land area of 9.98 million square kilometres. This would allow Canada to explore and extract mineral and other non-living resources from the seabed and subsoil.

The research by Brito and Griffiths made a significant contribution to the collection of the geological seabed data that was required for a robust evidence-based submission to the UN. The former Head of the Maritime Asset Protection Section at Defense Research Development Canada (DRDC) observed 'Without the work of Prof. Griffiths and Dr. Brito the operation team would not have known: 1. how many test missions were needed in order to achieve the required reliability for mission success; 2. What were the most important failure modes to correct prior to the arctic mission; 3. What was the length of the monitoring distance in order to achieve the acceptable risk level for AUV loss; and, 4. What was the risk of AUV loss for each of the seafloor mapping missions'.

Underpinning grants

NERC’s Oceans 2025 Research Programme, work-package 8.4 Towards Targeted Reliability, contributing with the development of statistical survival estimators for quantifying the probability of mission abort and of vehicle loss in light of historical data and expert judgments on the consequence of each fault.

Co-Researcher in NERC funded Tracking AUV risk mitigation (2011-2012), £65,000 contributing towards the development of a probability model for updating the risk profile in light of the effectiveness of the failure mitigation.

Innovate UK KTP Marine Autonomous Systems Risk and Reliability (2015-2017), £166,000 contributing to the development of data collection processes and implementation of the statistical survival models for mission risk prediction, development of fault trees for C-Worker 5 ASV for quantifying the probability of mission abort.


Natural Enviroment Research Council
Eng Phys Sciences Research Council
Innovate UK
ISE Ltd.
Natural Resources Canada

Key Publications

List of all staff members in
Staff MemberPrimary Position
Mario BritoAssociate Professor of Risk Analysis and Risk Management
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