A solar-powered, wave-hopping robot named Alex was launched into the ocean by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) earlier this month to help improve hurricane tracking, and the boogie-board-sized craft has already had its first taste of action. It has been busily collecting ocean data on the fringes of Hurricane Isaac’s path north of Puerto Rico, and sooner or later this season it may find itself smack in the middle of a hurricane. As if that’s not a big enough job, Alex could also find itself in the crosshairs of Rush Limbaugh’s next rant about “weather dolts” at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center.
Mobile Robots Improve Hurricane Tracking
According to a recent article by Tekla Perry for IEEE, one key goal is to gain a better understanding of the factors that propel a tropical storm into hurricane status, and from one category of intensity to another.
Water temperature plays a critical role in this progression, but data from satellites, manned ships, airplanes, and moored buoys are providing an incomplete picture. Alex is able to measure ocean temperatures below the surface, and as a simply designed and unmanned craft, it can brave conditions that would be far too risky for a human or a more complicated device.
Alex can remain at sea for months at a time, and its mobility will also add far greater range and precision to the existing network of moored buoys deployed by NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center.
Cool, But How Does a Solar-Powered Seagoing Robot Work?
Alex is one of about 100 Wave Gliders built so far by the company Liquid Robotics. Solar panels on the top of the Wave Glider provide renewable energy to power its data collection equipment, which includes a standard weather station as well as a thermistor chain for measuring below-surface water temperatures up to seven meters deep (thermistor refers to an electrical device for sensing temperature).
Without the need for refueling or resupply, the Wave Glider can remain in continuous action for months at a time.
Solar power is just one part of the secret to the Wave Glider’s mobility. Its platform basically consists of two parts connected in a type of hinge, which enables it to harvest the energy from ocean waves and convert it into forward thrust.
Many Jobs for a Green Robot
Saving human life through more accurate storm and tsunami prediction is just part of the Wave Glider’s job. Earlier this month, CleanTechnica described the launch of Stanford University’s Wave Glider, which will integrate with a network of stationary buoys to improve ocean health monitoring.
Tracking fish populations, monitoring individual sea creatures and collecting data on unusual events such as algae and phytoplankton blooms are a few of the jobs under way for the Wave Glider.
As for durability, Wave Gliders have already encountered and survived hurricane conditions during a Pacific Ocean crossing this summer, which Liquid Robotics is chronicling on its PacX blog, so weathering a bit of bluster from our friend Rush should be a piece of cake.
Image: Courtesy of Liquid Robotics.
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