Prestigious Title Awarded for Marine Robotics


With a career focused on
robotics and mapping ocean floor habitats, Head of the University of Sydney’s 
Faculty of Engineering and IT’s School
Aerospace, Mechatronic and
Mechanical Engineering
Professor Stefan Williams,
was awarded the title of
Distinguished Lecturer by the 
IEEE Ocean Engineering Society for his high
degree of technical proficiency in oceanographic research and


Professor Williams is the leader of the IMOS Autonomous Underwater Vehicle facility managed by SIMS and can often be found down at Chowder Bay testing different equipment.


“My work in the
development of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and our program of marine
surveying are recognised internationally for the quality of the data we are
collecting, as well as the scale of the program we operate,” he said.

For over a decade,
Professor Williams’ team has operated an integrated benthic monitoring program
through Australia’s
Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS). The program uses
AUV systems to collect seafloor imagery at key reference sites around

Benthic zones, some of
the least observed habitats in the world, are ecological regions at the lowest
point in a body of water, such as the ocean floor. Over the past ten years,
Professor Williams has used marine robotic vehicles to study these sensitive
marine habitats around Australia’s vast coastline. This has included surveys of
coral reefs on the country’s east and west coasts, as well as temperate regions
in Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and NSW.

The program has focused
on collecting long time-series imagery, helping scientists document habitat
changes over time. This has included surveys following events such as coral
bleaching and cyclones in tropical reefs. The team has also documented changes
in species such as urchins and kelp, and has studied deep water habitats along
the continental shelf.

“Our research is helping
marine ecologists track changes in benthic habitats and document range shifts
in key species associated with changing oceanographic conditions, as well as
exploring marine archaeological sites and deep water geological zones,” he

“Oceanographic surveying
is expanding rapidly thanks to the increasing endurance of marine robotic
systems. Technology has developed to the point where there are now unmanned
surface vessels that are capable of crossing oceans.”

Robotics advancements
have effectively ‘unlocked’ previously untraversed underwater regions, allowing
researchers to collect data and map seafloor habitats, while also allowing them
to be less reliant on more costly forms of access, such as research

Professor Williams’ team
has recently entered the final phase of introducing a new AUV system to their
suite of vehicles, which has increased camera resolution and the capacity to
survey nearshore and shelf environments, such as tropical and temperate

“We have also developed
machine learning tools that let us manage the huge volumes of seafloor images
that we’ve collected. At present we have more than five million seafloor images
from around Australia, from the tropics in Queensland and WA through temperate
regions in the south.”

“These images and the
detailed seafloor models we produce are providing fascinating insights into key
areas of the seafloor.”

“It’s necessary that
these robots can operate for long periods of time without any direct human
oversight — therefore most decision making and planning will need to be
embedded into the technology, which has been a key focus of our research over
the past few years,” he concluded.

In May, Professor
Williams will be travelling to the University of Southampton to work with
collaborators who are developing new oceanographic observing systems. He has
also been invited to give talks in Scotland, France, Germany and China about
his work.


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