The National Science Foundation has just awarded researchers at UC San Diego a $1million grant to develop small robotic devices that will drift with the ocean currents to study the mechanisms that support plankton and other tiny marine creatures. Swarms of the autonomous underwater explorers (AUE’s) could provide a window into the underlying factors that drive broader ocean processes, by more precisely focusing on localized data on currents, temperature, salinity, pressure, and other properties.
The robots could also some day patrol and monitor protected marine areas, provide early warnings of potential hazards such as algae blooms and oil spills, and even scout out plane crashes and other ocean-going emergencies. Depending on how the devices are powered, the robot swarms could also provide a more sustainable means of accomplishing oceanic research compared to the use of ships and other fossil fuel-powered equipment.
Swarms of Autonomous Robots
The research team will initially develop about a half dozen underwater robots that are roughly the size of a soccer ball and 20 smaller versions. The mechanisms are designed to be straightforward enough for school children to assemble and deploy as part of an outreach project. A related $1.5 million grant will go to develop the systems needed to control the robots from a remote location.
The undersea robots will join a growing body of robotic devices with an environmental purpose, including robotic “fish” that monitor water quality in lakes and reservoirs, and drones that are being used to measure the Greenland ice sheet.
Image: Rendering of AUE’s by SIO via National Science Foundation.