New Robots Will Help Fill in Gaps and Enhance Ocean Knowledge

Written by on November 19, 2009 in Other News, Technology
Autonomous Underwater Explorers - Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Autonomous Underwater Explorers - Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have been awarded  a total of nearly $2.5 million — $1 million from the National Science Foundation and $1.5 million from NSF’s Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation initiative — to develop a new breed of ocean-probing instruments and design and develop the systems necessary to control the movement of those autonomous underwater explorers (AUEs) respectively.  These “Miniature Robotic Ocean Explorers” are intended to plug gaps of knowledge about key ocean processes and trace fine details of fundamental oceanographic mechanisms that are vital to tiny marine inhabitants.

Oceanographers already have good knowledge of broad ocean processes, and will now concentrate on functions unfolding at the small scale.  By more clearly defining localized currents and focused data about temperature, salinity, pressure and biological properties, Jules Jaffe and Peter Franks believe AUEs will offer new and valued information about a range of oceanic phenomena.  The miniature robots also can aid in science’s development of marine protected areas by following currents for determining critical nursery habitats, tracking harmful blooms of algae and potentially even contributing to monitor events such as oil spills, by detailing how they develop and change over time, and aid rescue efforts at airplane crashes tracking currents to determine where among the wreckage a black box may be located.

The AUEs will work through a system under which several soccer-ball sized AUE devices are deployed in conjunction with many-tens or even hundreds-of pint-sized AUE explorers.  As they move about the ocean, the smaller-sized AUEs will use acoustic transmissions from the “mothership” AUEs to ascertain their positions. Collectively, the entire “swarms” of AUEs will help track fine ocean currents and flows that organisms at the small scale, tiny abalone larvae, for example, experience in the ocean.

Peter Franks, a professor of biological oceanography in the Integrative Oceanography Division at Scripps and who conducts research on marine phytoplankton said:

“AUEs will give us information and statistics to figure out how the small organisms survive, how they move in the ocean and the physical dynamics they experience as they get around.  AUEs should improve our ocean models and eventually allow us to do a better job of following the weather and climate of the ocean, as well as help us understand things like carbon fluxes.  The new concentration on dense sampling at small scales will help resolve some of the patchiness in understanding the physical and biological properties on those scales.

Plankton are somewhat like the balloons of the ocean floating around out there.  We are trying to figure out how the ocean works at the scales that matter to the plankton. You put 100 of these AUEs in the ocean and let ‘er rip.  We’ll be able to look at how they spread apart and how they move to get a sense of the physics driving the flow.”

Listen to Jules Jaffe as he describes his latest scheme to uncover these processes with swarms of inexpensive, miniaturized robotic floats that travel with currents, sense the environment and report their findings back to us. (58 minutes)

Copyright ©  2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Celia is Director of Business Operations for OceanLines LLC and is a frequent contributor to both OceanLines and Marine Science Today. She is a certified diver and her favorite topic is marine biology, especially stories about whales. .

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