THE way that waves and currents are measured – which is vital for those who make their living from the sea – could be transformed following a year-long trial by a group of researchers in the Western Isles.

The offshore oil and gas sector has already shown interest in the research.

A team from Lews Castle UHI, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, started their trial by installing a maritime radar system at the Butt of Lewis lighthouse on the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis.

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They deployed a standard marine radar system – which is used by ships to detect obstacles – and modified it to maximise the data that can be returned from the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean.

The team believes the technology can provide more accurate measurements across a much wider area and is considerably more reliable than traditional measurement methods, which use buoys.

Arne Vögler, a senior research engineer at Lews Castle College UHI, who is leading the EU-funded project, said: “Wave data is a critical component of offshore operations.

“It ensures accurate forecasting for safe operation and maintenance activities and is a fundamental requirement for the emerging wave and tidal sector to characterise the resource.

“This system could be transformational for many offshore based industries and commercial interest, even at this early stage, is high.”

The system installed for the trial uses a standard X-Band navigational ship radar, similar to that generally used on larger vessels, such as CalMac ferries running the local services between the islands. Many older vessels or smaller fishing boats use what are called S-Band radars, which give displays in a lower resolution.

Navigational radar is used to avoid collisions and to detect vessels and other obstacles in conditions of poor visibility.

Frequently, such marine radars are tuned to minimise sea clutter – noise from the sea surface – but the researchers’ system has been designed to maximise the return of data from the surface.

The team has also added additional software and hardware to the existing radar – an interface to a powerful workstation computer which has been kitted out with sophisticated timing hardware to enable it to cope with the high volume of data and sub-millisecond timing of the information returned.

They have developed their own data processing solutions for dealing with the “raw” data which the system returns.

Now the team are analysing all the data from the trial and exploring the options open to them to commercialise the system.

Team members are collaborating with Dr Jaqueline Christmas from the University of Exeter on a related project.

They have also contributed to trials of a similar system at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, along with colleagues from North Highland College UHI’s Environmental Research Institute.

James Morrison, a researcher at Lews Castle UHI, who is responsible for processing data from the trial, said: “The standard method of measuring waves uses small, single-point buoys.

“However, these systems can be expensive to install and recover, and are very vulnerable to damage, loss and theft.

“The new technique can be used to accurately monitor large areas of sea, at low cost, with little supervision and maintenance.”