From sea to summit - how marine science is helping in the hills

Published 30/03/2022 by Janice Findlay 4 min read

Grant Phillips and Phillip Thomson of SAMS Enterprise (credit: Mark Hart)

Janice Findlay, innovation programme manager with HIE’s Co-Innovate programme, learns more about a collaboration project using marine science to predict snow and ice conditions.

Based at the European Marine Science Park at Dunstaffnage near Oban, you might expect this project to take place under the sea or at least near to the shore. Indeed, its origins are in the polar marine environment, but these days you’re just as likely to find the SAMS Enterprise team at the top of a mountain.

For three yours now, they have been working with the Scottish Avalanche Information Service on a prototype to measure snow above ice or ground level. This is to help forecast avalanche conditions in the snowpack; or predict snow-melt conditions, which is important for flood prediction and the protection of life, infrastructure and the environment.

They are now also collaborating with the Institute of Technology Sligo in Ireland.

“We have developed and tested the technology to gather the required data but what we needed to do next was package this into a product suitable for our customer base,” explained Mike Spain, head of enterprise.

The Co-Innovate Programme awarded SAMS Enterprise a grant to employ a project manager to modify the design of their prototype Snow SIMBA (snow ice mass balance apparatus). They need to make it more lightweight and portable but still robust enough to withstand testing during the harsh Scottish winters.

Grant Phillips, 24, studied Product Design Engineering at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Hejoined the business back in June 2021, bringing academic as well as commercial experience in design and manufacture.

When I asked him about his role, he told me it was a perfect match for him on so many levels.

“It allows me to combine my passion for skiing and the outdoors with my professional work, which is great.

“Growing up in Oban I have always been aware of SAMS and the exceptional work they do. Supporting future research through my role adds a great meaning to the project.”

SAMS Enterprise provides a range of products and services to the aquaculture, seaweed and marine energy sectors. 

The original SIMBA technology developed by SAMS was used as a polar ice research tool.

Mark Hart, quality manager at SAMS Enterprise, told me more about what they were planning to do with the project and why.

“We knew this market was too small to achieve the full commercial potential we believed this technology has,” he explained. “The Snow SIMBA will extend and diversify the customer base from the polar research market to weather forecasters; Ski resorts; government agencies; logistics and utilities companies, in fact anyone and anywhere there is a risk posed by avalanche and or flood risk.”

However, taking the Snow-SIMBA from the proof-of-concept prototype to a fully commercial ready product required expertise that the business did not have. This is one area where Co-Innovate was able to help.

“The Co-Innovate funding has allowed this bottleneck to be resolved by having a dedicated resource to move Snow-SIMBA from prototype to a finished product ready for sale,” explained Mike Spain.  

“Having a project manager work on the Snow-SIMBA allows existing staff to focus on iterative improvements to the platform technology and data transfer methodology.”

Mike is also delighted to have the expertise of IT Sligo involved in the project.

“We are lucky to be working with two experienced academics from the Institute of Technology Sligo in Ireland who have been instrumental in the development of the project.

“Dr Xavier Velay brings more than 20 years experience of interaction with design, education and industry, giving the project a unique insight into the design world. 

“His knowledge and experience are complemented by Mark McLoughlin, who brings industry experience linked to a number of different aspects of engineering, including fixture design, process engineering, and rapid prototyping.”

Now in the final stages of the 12-month project, Grant Phillips is in no doubt about its significance.

“The possible impact of this equipment is really exciting,” he says. “We are really close to developing a product that will not only expand our knowledge of snow science but that could potentially help save lives in the future.”  

Look out for next month’s blog on another exciting innovation and collaboration project happening in the Highlands and Islands.

Co-Innovate supports small or medium sized businesses based in the Outer Hebrides, Skye and Lochalsh, Lochaber and Argyll and the Islands. While applications for the business and academia projects are now closed, business advisers can still provide advice, signpost to relevant support and help connect to networks to those looking to develop a new product, service or process.

Co-Innovate is supported by the European Union's INTERREG VA Programme and managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB). It is delivered in the Highlands and Islands by HIE.

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