Oceanographers develop “Swarms” of Robotic Ocean Explorers

The marine scientists Jules Jaffe and Peter Franks of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, in California, have developed autonomous underwater explorers (AUEs), miniature robots that will aid in obtaining information needed for developing marine protected areas, determining critical nursery habitats for fish and other animals, tracking harmful algae blooms, and monitoring oil spills.

Autonomous underwater explorers (AUEs) will provide new information about the oceans. Credit: SIO

Oceanographers have been skilled in detailing large-scale ocean processes, but the last decades has become essential to unfold oceanographic functions at smaller scales, such as localized currents, temperature, salinity, pressure and biological properties that are vital to tiny marine inhabitants.

The deployment of AUEs in the oceans will offer new and valuable information about a range of ocean phenomena and will provide a whole new kind of information about small organisms and how they operate in the complex surroundings of the oceans.

AUEs work through a system in which several soccer-ball-sized explorers are deployed with many tens–or even hundreds–of pint-sized explorers. Collectively, the entire “swarm” of AUEs will help inform debates about the best areas for habitat protection and will track ocean currents that organisms at a small-scale, such as tiny abalone larvae, for example, experience in the ocean.

Peter Franks says that “AUEs will give us information to figure out how small organisms survive, how they move in the ocean, and the physical dynamics they experience as they get around.” Moreover, they “should improve ocean models and 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.”

With harmful algal blooms and oil spills, AUEs can be deployed directly into outbreak patches to gauge how they develop and change over time. In the case of an airplane crash over the ocean, AUEs should be able to track currents to determine where among the wreckage a black box may be located.

The researchers have been given $1.5 million from NSF’s Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation initiative to design and develop the systems necessary to control the movement of AUEs. During the pilot phase of the project, Jaffe, Franks and their colleagues will build five to six of the soccer-ball-sized explorers and 20 of the smaller versions. An outreach component of the project will enlist school children in building and ultimately deploying AUEs.

Source: National Science Foundation

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