Swarms of tiny robots to monitor the oceans

Scientists want to learn much more aobut the ocean than they currently know. So they're developing tiny robots to go underwater and observe.

A number of scientific organizations are working on pint-size robots that will act much like schools of fish to explore and monitor the oceans.

Oceans cover about 71 percent of the earth's surface. Much of what happens in this watery world — and by extension, almost three-quarters of the planet's surface — remains maddeningly beyond humanity's ability to easily measure it.

Scientists have so far used their understanding of physics and fluid dynamics, combined with what direct observations are available, to infer how the ocean works. These inferences remain, in many cases, best guesses -- albeit very well-informed best guesses. But scientists inevitably dream of a day when they can directly observe the goings-on of the ocean.

That day, it seems, is moving closer and closer to actuality.

Various ongoing projects are enhancing our ability to monitor, in real time, what happens in the ocean. An improved ability to peek into this previously hidden realm will aid in several important endeavors — fishery management, understanding the impacts of climate change on ocean dynamics, and forecasting tsunamis among them.

In that regard, scientists at the University of San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography of the University of California San Diego are now developing some potentially important new devices: small, low-cost, ocean-going robots that, in some respects, act like schools of fish. They swarm.

Earlier this week, the National Science Foundation awarded grants to two teams at Scripps. The goal: to develop new, ocean-monitoring robots that are deployed, and operate, in groups.

The so-called autonomous underwater explorers (AUEs) will work as follows: Many tens or even hundreds of pint-size AUEs will be dropped into the ocean along with a few "motherships" — basketball-sized AUEs.

The smaller AUEs will communicate with the larger using acoustic signals. Together, the swarm will provide detailed and fine-grained information on how the water is moving — rising, falling, swirling, and so on. (Here's a video of Scripps scientist Jules Jaffe explaining how the marine robot swarms will work. )

The AUEs might be used to understand how currents might carry pollution, such as oil spills or sewage effluence, away from point of pollution. Likewise, they could aid in the design of marine protected areas by helping scientists understand how fish larvae disperse with currents.

When functional, these mini-robots will presumably be one of many tools in the National Science Foundation's Ocean Observatories Initiative. OOI, as it's called, aims to build a network of ocean sensors to "measure the physical, chemical, geological and biological variables in the ocean and seafloor."

In September, after more than a decade of planning, OOI received funding for construction from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and from NSF. (You can see the location of observatories here.)

And efforts to monitor the ocean don't stop there.

OOI will integrate into a larger, multiagency, public-private effort called the Integrated Ocean Observing System, or IOOS.

And IOOS itself will plug into the greater Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), in which 80 governments are participating.

Here and there, pieces of this earth-wide ocean monitoring system are already in place. One section, formerly known as NEPTUNE and now rechristened Regional Scale Nodes (RSN), has various "nodes" up and running. Underwater stations connected to dry land by fiber optic cables currently monitor conditions on the Juan de Fuca plate off the Pacific Northwest, which straddles US and Canadian waters.

The Monterey Ocean Observing System (MOOS) and Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS), meanwhile, already observe life at a depth of 2,923 feet in the Monterey Bay. (They served as testing grounds for methods, technologies and materials used in the larger NEPTUNE project.)

There's also a NEPTUNE Canada, which is connected, like some of the other initiatives, directly to the Internet. (Here's another called VENUS.

And earlier this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deployed the seventh in a series of "smart buoys" meant to monitor water quality and weather conditions in Chesapeake Bay.

Incrementally and in fits and starts, humanity, it seems, is extending sensors into the vast unknown of the world's marine environment. And in so doing, we're wiring the world's oceans.

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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