Fleets of Autonomous Robots Coming to an Ocean Near You

Illustration for article titled Fleets of Autonomous Robots Coming to an Ocean Near You

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography is preparing to roll out hundreds of small, seafaring robotic explorers. If you're out for a swim and a robot tries to make friends with you, don't stand in the way of science!


The San Diego-based Scripps Institution recently got funding from the National Science Foundation to build and deploy legions of "autonomous underwater explorers," or AUEs. In the design given on the Scripps website, these devices look like small weather balloons with boom-box antennae rising from the top. The largest models would be about the size of a soccer ball.

The AUEs, according to Scripps researcher and project point-man Jules Jaffe, will be able to move and gather data independently, riding the ocean's subsurface currents. They'll be networked and capable of communicating with each other; they'll be sensitive to external conditions like temperature, pressure and salinity; and they'll be equipped with compressed-air canisters that they can use to regulate their own buoyancy.


In a presentation given this past summer, Jaffe talked about how these robots could be used to track algae blooms, monitor the dispersal patterns of microscopic larvae, and locate certain submerged items, like the black box from a downed plane. The initial distribution would take place off the California coast, but Jaffe used the word "global" a few times in his remarks, and it's clear that his ambitions for the project have a wider scope than just one area of the east-equatorial Pacific.

Who's building the AUEs? While the Scripps team will be responsible for the first wave of robots, Jaffe sees a day when middle school or high school students will be able to build their own working versions from a kit in the classroom. These homemade AUEs would be fully functional, and once they were assembled, they'd be sent out into the field to gather data. The students could then track the progress of their own robots through the ocean.

In the talk linked above, Jaffe also outlined his plan for rounding up the robots at the end of their missions:

We've gotta be pretty green, right? Because we don't want to be throwing stuff in the ocean. So my plan is, we offer [people] a hundred bucks for every one they get, and we're gonna give them the GPS coordinates. And we're gonna tell them, look, if you get these to me before I'm finished using them, I'm not gonna pay it. And I have a feeling you would get a lot of them back. I mean, it's a pretty good deal… I have a feeling, if you went out in a day, you'd probably make five hundred, a thousand bucks in a five-mile radius.


Photo by jon hanson, used under Creative Commons license.

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