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Robotic Subs May Help Track Weather and Ocean Health

A robotic sub sets a distance record while recording a trove of data



COURTESY OF LIQUID ROBOTICS

Several scientists are poring over data recorded by a robotic submarine that set a distance record for autonomous vehicles when it crossed the Pacific Ocean late last year. The surfboard-size, wave-powered Papa Mau traveled 16,668 kilometers from San Francisco to Australia's Hervey Bay, tracking information about ocean currents, wind speed and organisms critical to ocean life.

The submersible had been at sea for more than a year, one of a fleet of four robotic vehicles called Wave Gliders launched by Sunnyvale, Calif.–based Liquid Robotics. The company's CEO, Bill Vass, says his submarines provide more precise data than satellites, which are used to track wind speeds, wave heights and algal blooms. Satellites “make their best guess” from 400 kilometers up, Vass says, and can track only conditions near the water's surface, but the gliders “feel the full breadth of the current.” This ability could make them better at determining current speed and direction, which have major effects on the shipping industry, oil and gas operations, and global weather.

Oscar Schofield, a Rutgers University professor of bio-optical oceanography, agrees that satellites are limited, but “they are the only way to provide a global view of the ocean, albeit weighted to the surface.” The question is how to fill in the subsurface, three-dimensional structure. Scott Glenn, a Rutgers professor who specializes in physical oceanography, says combining data from satellites and gliders might provide a fuller picture. Satellites create maps of instants in time, whereas surface wave gliders and underwater profiling gliders provide vertical profiles of the water and can be redirected to areas of greatest interest, Glenn says.

Liquid Robotics has chosen five scientists to study the data from the Papa Mau and its other gliders. Researchers at the University of California, Merced, the University of California, Santa Cruz, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the University of Texas at Austin and Boston-based software firm Wise Eddy will use the information to analyze the ocean's health and respiration, its biomass and other information critical to marine life.

This article was originally published with the title "Beyond the Ocean's Surface."

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