By Ariel Schwartz
Surviving stormy weather and a shark attack, the Wave Glider just entered the record books for the longest autonomous trip ever taken.
On his first journey across the Pacific Ocean, Papa Mau was bitten by a shark, whipped by by 100 mph winds, and tossed by 30 foot waves. Somehow he survived the whole 9,000 nautical mile trip from Northern California to Australia. Papa Mau now holds the world record for distance traveled by an autonomous vehicle on land or in the sea.
The surfboard-sized robot is one of Liquid Robotics' Wave Gliders--the first marine robots that propel themselves forward with wave energy. In November 2011, four Wave Gliders took off on a slow journey (they have a top speed of one and a half knots) across the Pacific, armed with sensors that measure oil spills, salinity levels, phytoplankton activity, and more. The goal: to spark interest in marine science, foster new innovations, and prove out Liquid Robotics' technology. All data from the journey is available for free to anyone who registers on the Liquid Robotics website.
Papa Mau is the first Wave Glider to finish his journey; the other three robots are still in transit. All four Wave Gliders were taken from San Francisco to the Monterey Bay, where they spent three weeks syncing their data with existing sensors in the area (from organizations like NOAA). From there, the robots' paths diverged.
The four robots continued together in a straight line to Hawaii, where they encountered the aforementioned 100 mph winds and 30 foot waves on a bright, sunny day. A nearby sailboat was so overwhelmed by the sudden nasty weather that it lost its mast and had to get rescued by a freighter. "When we first saw that, we thought a sensor must be broken. But all four [Wave Gliders] started to see it," says Liquid Robotics CEO Bill Vass. "It didn't show up on satellite systems. You hear stories like that from sailors and no one believes it."
On the way to Hawaii, one of the Wave Gliders (cost: approximately $200,000) was bitten by a shark, which chomped through the controller cable for its rudder system. The robot made a pit stop in Oahu (all of the bots stopped briefly in Hawaii to sync up with a set of buoys), where it picked up a cable before heading back into the water. Sharks are often intrigued by the Wave Gliders and like to taste them, but this was the first time such severe damage had been done. "The shark bit through a steel-braided protective cable all the way into the control lines. The tooth is still embedded," says Vass. As a result of the incident, the next generation Wave Glider control cables will run inside the body in a metal tube.
Two of the Wave Gliders headed out from Hawaii to Shikoku, Japan; the other two--including Papa Mau--set off for Brisbane, Australia. Mau shot down past American Samoa and the Fiji Islands, and then swung north and entered the East Australian Current before finally landing in Australia. The other Australia-bound Wave Glider, Benjamin, took a detour in American Samoa because of a malfunctioning sensor. He's now seven weeks behind Papa Mau.
The Japan-bound robots are also on their way. One of them had to get serviced before continuing its journey. "The ocean's a rough place to operate," says Vass.
The Wave Glider is currently being used for up to 60 different applications, including helping ships reduce fuel consumption, measuring carbon output, helping wit fishery management, and oil and gas exploration. As evidenced by the de-masted sailboat incident, the robot can detect things that satellites miss. "From a satellite system you can't tell an algal bloom and plankton bloom from a hydrocarbon plume. We can measure down to two parts per trillion of hydrocarbons. We can tell [if a plume is] from fish, a natural oil seep, an oil rig, a plankton plume," explains Vass. In other words, the Wave Glider can detect oil spills in remote places where they might otherwise have gone unnoticed for too long. With so many capabilities, it's no surprise that Wave Gliders are used by organizations as varied as BP and NOAA.
In addition to Papa Mau's arrival in Australia, Liquid Robotics also announced this week that it has selected the five finalists for the PacX Challenge, a competition that asked scientists to submit a research abstract outlining what they could do with the Wave Glider data sets. Entrants are studying everything from the respiration of the ocean to phytoplankton.
The winner will get to use a Wave Glider for six months and receive a $50,000 research grant, sponsored by BP. "If you were to hire a deep ocean research vessel, it would cost $37,500 per day on average. This is six months equivalent. It's a pretty big award for scientists to go out and do that," says Vass.
Copyright 2012 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.