The World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef and one of the most breathtaking and spectacular habitats in the world. Stretching over 2,300 kilometers along Australia’s northeastern coast, with an area of approximately 344,000 square kilometers, it is roughly the same size as Germany. But, alarmingly, it is under serious threat from ocean warming and acidification, pollution, and outbreaks of natural predators such as the crown-of-thorns starfish. Scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) are conducting groundbreaking research into how to save this remarkable place for future generations to enjoy. Thanks to Siemens technology, the researchers can now simulate the reef in the new National Sea Simulator (SeaSim), a facility unlike any other in the world.
Dim blue light over a set of tanks, the subdued hum of pumps, and the sound of moving water are what greet visitors at the National Sea Simulator. Equipped with the latest automation and drive technology, the facility aims to help protect the world’s tropical marine ecosystems.
Simulating ocean conditions
AIMS is an Australian government research organization that specializes in tropical marine research. Using the SeaSim aquarium facility, which opened in Townsville, Queensland, adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, in August 2013, AIMS scientists can replicate ocean conditions. They are studying how human activities and natural events currently impact the reef, how they might affect the future of the reef, and how to protect the 1,625 species of fish; more than 600 types of hard and soft coral; 133 species of sharks and rays; six of the world’s seven species of threatened marine turtles; 3,000 mollusks; and thousands of different sponges, worms, crustaceans, echinoderms, and marine mammals.
Value of an ecosystem
According to Mark Read, manager of operations support at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the economic value the Great Barrier Reef brings to Australia is about AUD 5.6 billion a year. “Also, the reef provides just under 70,000 jobs,” he says, “about 64,000 of those directly involved with tourism. However, including the natural value the reef brings means it’s very, very difficult to put a dollar figure on the entire area. It’s big.”
Looking at those numbers, it is clear that being able to simulate the reef and have a better understanding of the impacts of climate change, coral bleaching, pest management, sediment and pollution, and seawater technologies is vitally important. “SeaSim gives us a capability we have never had before in terms of the complexity of experiments we can carry out. The Siemens technology underpins all the monitoring systems here within SeaSim. We are able to look at multiple environmental parameters that affect marine organisms, and this is the first time we have been able to do that,” says Dr. David Souter, AIMS research director. “We have various types of infrastructure at AIMS, but SeaSim is the most spectacular of our infrastructure developments.”
Developing a sea simulation system
The main focus of the SeaSim project was to provide a complete plant/process automation system to run high-quality marine research in an aquarium setting. For this purpose, AIMS evaluated several control solutions before finally selecting Simatic PCS 7 as its system of choice. The key factor was the system’s impressive track record of industry applications, where it had proven its high availability, reliability, and scalability. These features are important for AIMS research, as the teams need to perform multiple experiments running simultaneously over longer periods of time. Some experiments will run for years, and the researchers need to add or remove other experiments without taking the control system offline for system modifications.
Nontraditional application of industrial technology
The initial automation solution was developed by SAGE Automation, one of Australia’s leading independent automation and control systems integration service providers and a Siemens Solution Partner. The company was required to provide a highly reliable and scalable control system, capable of high-accuracy measurement and control of critical process variables, as well as long-term data logging and reporting involving big volumes of data. For Adrian Fahey, CEO of SAGE Automation, “the project is a great example of industrial technology being applied successfully in a nontraditional industrial application. The solution was driven by high-precision data collection and reporting.”
The plant automation system is based on a Simatic PCS 7 system with a dual-redundant OS server and several OS clients for local operation. PCS 7 also integrates a number of package units for individual experiments that are automated with Simatic S7-1200/Simatic S7-1500 controllers via an Industrial Ethernet communications backbone. In addition, Siemens supplied Sinamics variable-speed drives that are linked via Profibus to the control system. To ensure long-term data availability and provide the research teams with data logging and archiving features, the solution also contains Simatic Process Historian / Simatic Information Server. Having multiple Siemens components in one package paid off through significantly reduced engineering time as well as greatly increased information availability in the PCS 7 control system, including diagnostic and maintenance information about the variable-speed drives.
Technology for a greater good
Since the successful delivery and commissioning of all the system components, PCS 7 has controlled the reverse osmosis plant as well as the experimental area of the research facility, providing the AIMS teams with precise control over temperature, acidity, salinity, sedimentation, and contaminants in the large seawater tanks of the research facility, where Australian and international researchers are working to determine the impact of water quality on tropical marine organisms and ecosystems. One of these researchers is SeaSim’s precinct operations manager Craig Humphrey. He appreciates the features that SeaSim’s advanced control system provides. “Over 70 individual experiments have been conducted in the SeaSim to date, ranging from experiments run over days to weeks to others which will take years to be completed.
Through the unprecedented level of control we now have thanks to the Siemens control system, we are now able to undertake experiments we could only dream of in the past. Simatic PCS 7 provides for core processes to remain stable with high availability, ensuring no single point of failure of the control system can affect the experiment primary controls. Sequencing these primary systems is achieved effectively via the DCS system. In addition to this, it allows us to design and implement affordable custom controls in three IEC 61131-3 programming languages for the PLCs. With PCS 7 and TIA, we can create industry-leading advanced controls for the specific purpose of seawater organism scientific research.”
Protecting marine environments
These controls and the data they provide are what help scientists find solutions to protect tropical marine environments from climate change and also enhance Australia’s reputation as a world leader in tropical marine ecosystem science – and Siemens automation technology has become an integral part of a project much larger than SeaSim: protecting the Great Barrier Reef and, ultimately, marine ecosystems all over the world.