Bidston Observatory Technology Group

Joe Rae, November 2017

In 1969 Bidston Observatory became a component body of the Natural Environment Research Council and was renamed the Institute of Coastal Oceanography and Tides (ICOT) with an expansion of its oceanographic work. In the ICOT Annual Report for 1969/70 it states:–

“An essential component of any environmental research effort is the acquisition of relevant observations against which theories can be tested. In the marine sciences such fieldwork is invariably expensive both in capital equipment and operating costs; data acquisition systems should therefore be designed for maximum efficiency and minimum maintenance. It follows that such a system will provide a basis for the long-term monitoring of oceanographic variables, the analysis of which can be expected to yield a bonus in the same way that barometers and thermometers have contributed to both synoptic meteorology and climatology.”

“Dr Skinner was appointed head of the new instrument section in January (1970) and has commenced a critical survey of sensors, instrumentation techniques and data acquisition systems currently available in the field of coastal oceanography. Progress has been made in equipping design and maintenance facilities, and special attention is being paid to test and calibration facilities for transducers and specialised instrumentation.”

I joined ICOT in 1971 after ten years at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. On arrival at Bidston I was given a desk in what was originally the Morning Room of the Observatory which had been divided into two offices. One of these offices was occupied by Len Skinner, then Head of the Research Technology Division, and the other I shared with Ivor Chivers and Judith Daniels. Other technology staff, Alan Harrison, Alex Kerr, Tony Banaszek, Chris Walker, Bev Hughes and Doug Leighton, who was at that time the Tide Gauge Inspector, occupied rooms in the basement of the Observatory originally called the Cellars. In 1972 a prefabricated hut was erected on the front lawn of the Observatory to house the mechanical engineering workshop which was supervised by Kevin Taylor.

The Research Technology Division was organised into three sections, the Instrumentation Section, the Mechanical Design and Engineering Section and the Marine Operations Section. As well as design, development and deployment of new and improved oceanographic instrumentation and equipment, the Division was responsible for the maintenance, calibration, deployment and installation of existing systems. This involved most members of the Division in sea-going activities for the deployment, recovery and use of oceanographic equipment. In the 1971/72 ICOT Annual Report it states:–

“In the past year all three sections of the Research Technology Division have been engaged in an extensive programme of work in support of the Institute’s experimental activities. As a consequence, a large proportion of the effort has been associated with the preparation and deployment of instruments and ancillary equipment for cruise programmes.”

A major project being carried out at that time was the design and development of the ICOT Offshore Tide Gauge, including the evaluation and calibration of high accuracy low drift pressure sensors for use in this equipment.

In 1973 the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences (IOS) was formed by the merger of ICOT with the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) at Wormley, the Unit of Coastal Sedimentation (UCS) at Taunton, and the Marine Scientific Equipment Service (MSES) at the Research Vessel Base (RVB) in Barry. David Cartwright moved from Wormley to become Assistant Director (IOS) at Bidston. Len Skinner was appointed as Head of MSES at Barry and I took over his role in the Research Technology Division at Bidston, which then became the Instrumentation and Engineering Group (IOS Bidston) with a staff of fifteen.

In 1974 Bob Spencer moved to Bidston from Wormley, where he had worked on the design and development of the NIO Offshore Tide Gauge. This work continued at Bidston with the design, development, construction and deployment of shelf edge and deep sea versions of this equipment.

With the increase in staff and equipment at that time a number of technology staff had to be accommodated in premises at the Lairage in Birkenhead where oceanographic equipment was stored, maintained and prepared for deployment at sea. The accommodation situation was considerably improved in 1975 with the completion and occupation of the Joseph Proudman Building at Bidston. As well as offices for staff, the Joseph Proudman Building had purpose designed and spacious electronics, instrumentation and calibration laboratories, a mechanical engineering design and drawing office, a well equipped mechanical engineering workshop and an assembly area for the preparation of sea-going equipment.

In the new electronics laboratory Alan Harrison and Roger Palin were joined by David Flatt and Graham Ballard in 1975. Their work concentrated on current meters, thermistor chains, CTD systems and Continental Shelf offshore tide gauges. Later work also included the measurement of flow induced voltages on submarine cables, the development and use of self-contained sea-bed mounted instrument packages (PMP), and the major design, development and use of Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers (ADCP). In the calibration laboratory Tony Banaszek specialised in the evaluation, calibration and use of high accuracy low drift pressure sensors.

Doug Leighton worked on the preparation, installation and maintenance of tide gauges at coastal sites and on offshore platforms and, with Bev Hughes, also designed, manufactured and deployed mooring systems for the deployment of oceanographic instruments at sea. Alex Kerr was responsible for the maintenance, preparation and use of the acoustic command and release systems used in mooring systems and in shallow and deep bottom mounted instrument packages.

In 1975 Bill Ainscow and Alan Browell were appointed to the Tide Gauge Inspectorate with responsibility to operate, maintain, develop and modernise the UK National Tide Gauge Network which at that time included 34 permanent tide gauges around the coast of the UK. A major development of this Network was the introduction of the remote monitoring and data transfer facilities Dataring and Dataflow, mainly designed by Roger Palin. David Smith joined the Inspectorate in 1981 and then Les Bradley in 1990, by which time 34 of the 37 stations had been modernised to include Dataring and Dataflow systems. By 1998 an improved Dataring system had been designed and the Dataflow system had been replaced by Datalink for use by the Storm Tide Warning Service and the Thames Barrier Operations Room.

In 1977 Peter Foden joined Bob Spencer in the design, construction and deployment of deep sea pressure recorders and the design, installation and maintenance of a network of island based sea level stations in the South Atlantic and Antarctic. Major developments were a deep sea bottom pressure recorder with releasable data capsules (MYRTLE), a more compact and more easily deployable deep sea bottom pressure recorder (CROCUS), deep sea bottom mounted Inverted Echo Sounders (IES), and satellite data transmission systems for data recovery from capsules and island sea level stations. In 1992 Geoff Hargreaves joined this team and then Steve Mack in 1999.

In 1985 the Taunton site of IOS was closed down and a number of Taunton staff relocated to Bidston. John Humphery moved to Bidston and continued his work on the design, development and deployment of the Sediment Transport and Boundary Layer Equipment (STABLE). He was joined by Steve Moores in 1990 and a pop-up version of this equipment was designed and built for deployment in deeper waters. In 1992 a completely new STABLE was designed and built to accommodate additional and improved sensors and with greatly increased data processing and logging capability.

Peter Hardcastle also transferred from Taunton to Bidston in 1985 and worked on instrumentation to examine the interaction of sound with suspensions. A triple-frequency Acoustic Backscatter System (ABS) was designed and used to measure sediment concentration profiles in estuarine studies. Dual-frequency self-contained instruments were designed and used for near sea-bed measurements, including a High Resolution Coherent Doppler Current Profiler (HRCDCP), a Cross Correlation Current Profiler (CCCP), and an Acoustic Bed Ripple Profiler (ABRP).

Paul Bell joined the Technology Group in 1992 and worked on the use of coastal X-band radar for oceanographic measurements. Radar reflections from waves on the sea surface are recorded and analysed using 3D fast fourier transform techniques to give directional wave number spectra. These are then used to extract the two dimensional frequency spectrum of the waves over an area. The motion of waves between successive images can also be used to yield wave velocity vectors and these can provide an estimate of the local near-shore bathymetry.

The Mechanical Design and Engineering Section was responsible for the design, manufacture and testing of all the specialised pressure housings, frames and other mechanical equipment required for the deployment of offshore instrumentation systems and equipment, and for the installation of coastal equipment. Since 1974 John Casson headed this team and he also headed the diving team required for the installation of coastal and rig tide gauges. In the engineering drawing office Judith Daniels was joined by John Mackinnon and Dave Dawson in 1976 and then by Dave Jones in 1990. The mechanical engineering workshop was headed by Kevin Taylor and other workshop staff included Alan Browell, Ken Parry, Jack Clarke, Jim McKeown and Emlyn Jones.

In 1987 IOS (Bidston) became the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL) and Brian McCartney moved from Wormley to become Director. The Instrumentation and Engineering Group then became the Technology Group with a staff of twenty-three. The scientific work of POL was then grouped into three major projects, the North Sea Project (CRP1), Dynamics of Shelf and Sea Slopes (LRP1) and Sea Level, Ocean Topography and Tides (LRP2). The Technology Group continued to support all three science projects but also had its own project, Technology Development (LRP3). LRP3 ran from 1988 to 1994 and is described as follows in the Executive Summary of the Final Report on this project:–

Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory
Final Report on the Technology Development Project 1988/94 (LRP3)

Project Team: J.B.Rae (Project Leader), D.Flatt, P.R.Foden, P.J.Hardcastle, A.J.Harrison, J.D.Humphery, R.I.R.Palin, D.E.Smith, R.Spencer, P.D.Thorne.

Executive Summary
The main objective of the POL Technology Development Project (LRP3) is to develop oceanographic observational instrumentation and equipment which will enable new, improved, more efficient or more measurements to be made more readily available to support POL scientific programmes. The principal developments are of sea-bed pressure recorders with reduced drift, increased deployment duration and in-situ data processing and recovery; sea-bed mounted acoustic doppler current profilers with potential for measuring turbulent structure in boundary layers; near-bed instrumentation to elucidate sediment erosion, transport and deposition; acoustic tomography techniques for Continental Shelf waters; and improved equipment for the modernisation of the UK permanent tide gauge network.

The principal achievements in these developments during the project have been as follows:

1. A deep sea pressure recorder with four releasable data capsules has been completed and was first deployed in 1992. The first data capsule was recovered three weeks later with excellent data. The remaining capsules will be recovered at yearly intervals and the main instrument recovered in 1996. Design, testing and construction of the satellite data link from the capsules will be completed in preparation for the first deployment of this system in 1994. The microprocessor controlled data handling and storage techniques developed have also been used in the development of island sea level stations. A new type of deep sea inverted echo sounder has been evaluated and techniques for processing and analysing the acoustic data have been developed.

2. A 1MHz self-contained sea-bed acoustic doppler current profiler has been developed using a digital signal processor, ‘C’ language software, Flash EPROM memory and more efficient acoustic transducers, to greatly improve the range, resolution, reliability, ease of use and deployment time. These techniques have also been used in the development of 250KHz and 75KHz instruments. The acoustic backscatter signal strength has been used to derive sediment concentration profiles and when combined with the current profile data provides a high resolution measurement of sediment flux. Nearly 100 deployments of these instruments have been made and new deployment techniques developed for use in high current regimes and for recovery of the ballast frame.

3. Theoretical and experimental studies on the interaction of sound with suspensions have confirmed the approach of using acoustic backscatter to make suspended sediment measurements. A triple frequency acoustic backscatter system has been designed and used to measure sediment concentration profiles in estuarine studies. Dual frequency self-contained instruments have been designed and used for measurements at sea. A prototype coherent doppler system for high resolution current profile measurements near the sea bed has been designed and tested. The sediment transport and boundary layer equipment has been completely redesigned with high capacity data loggers and the first deployment was successfully completed in February 1993. For the first time this provided a complete data set describing the benthic current and pressure environment and the associated suspended sediment profiles.

4. Modernisation of the UK permanent tide gauge network has been completed at 24 sites, and a further four will be completed by March 1994. High speed modems are being introduced to improve data transfer, and a new workstation has been installed at POL to control the network and to improve data processing, presentation and evaluation. A three site network has been designed and installed at Barrow-in-Furness, including an offshore site. A real time system has been installed at five east coast sites providing data directly to the STWS. A mid-tide pressure sensor system has been designed, evaluated and is being installed at new sites to improve datum control.

5. An extensive review of acoustic tomography has been completed and a report written presenting the theoretical background and highlighting the majority of experiments which have been conducted, mainly in the deep oceans. Shallow waters are acoustically more complex and POL interests would probably have to concentrate on relatively simple applications of the technique.

In the early nineties the North Sea project (CRP1) was followed by a new Community Research Project called Land-Ocean Interaction Study (LOIS) with two main strands at POL, Ocean-Shelf Interactions (SES) and Coastal and Shelf Interactions (RACS). The Technology Group continued to support all the scientific projects at POL with the deployment and use of existing instrumentation systems and the development and use of new and improved systems.

In 1994 the Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences (CCMS) was formed by the merger of POL with the Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) and the Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory (DML). This did result in some technology collaboration between the three Laboratories and a CCMS Technology Development Project was proposed in 1997. However, before this was fully implemented CCMS was disbanded in 2000. POL moved from Bidston to the University of Liverpool in 2004 and became part of the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in 2010.

After the completion of LRP3 in 1994 further technology work at POL included the development of a small, freely drifting, neutrally buoyant oceanographic buoy with the capability of undulating throughout the water column. The buoyancy is adjusted under microprocessor control to enable the buoy to sink or rise at a desired rate, to drift at a set depth, to sit on the sea bed, or to drift on the surface. At the surface the position of the buoy would be determined using a GPS receiver and two-way communication would be established by VHF or satellite link to transfer recorded data and to reprogram the buoy. Pressure, temperature and conductivity can be recorded and other sensors added as required.

Another development, in collaboration with IESSG at the University of Nottingham, was of a moored surface following buoy incorporating a dual-frequency GPS receiver. GPS data and measurements of the inclination and freeboard of the buoy are transmitted by VHF radio to a shore based reference station. Data from a GPS receiver at the reference station can be combined with the buoy data to calculate the sea-surface level at the buoy relative to the reference station level every 2 seconds, to an accuracy of about 3cm. Offshore sea-level, surges, tides and waves can then be computed at the reference station and transmitted by telecom link in near real time.

To see further details and illustrations of some of the development projects carried out by the Bidston Technology Group please click the thumbnails below.

Technology Developments poster, part 1
Technology Development, part 1
Technology Developments poster, part 2
Technology Development, part 2

Shortly before retiring from Bidston Observatory in 1999 I put together two documents, one of these is a compilation of all the Bidston Technology Group Annual Reports from 1969 to 1998, and the other a compilation of all the minutes of the POL Fieldwork and Scientific Support Committee between 1986 and 1999. The former document includes a copy of the Final Report of the Technology Development Project 1988/94 (LRP3), referred to earlier, and the front page lists all of the staff in the Technology Group between 1969 and 1999, fifty in total, with the numbers increasing from nine in 1970 to a maximum of twenty-seven in 1995. Anyone interested in seeing these documents should inquire with the National Oceanographic Library at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton.

On retiring I was delighted to be presented with the very appropriate gift of a walking GPS receiver from the POL staff. As well as accurately measuring and recording latitude and longitude anywhere on the surface of the Earth this remarkable little instrument uses an atmospheric pressure sensor, calibrated with the GPS signal, to also measure and record its elevation above sea level. I can now report that since then I have made very good use of this instrument, although recently superseded by an even more remarkable smartphone, in navigating my way over the hills and mountains of Snowdonia and the Lake District.