What’s self-propelled, floats, and is designed to collect ocean intelligence? Ashley Ahearn of EarthFix reports on a new technology that could help scientists learn more about the mysteries of the underwater world.
GELLERMAN: Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth, yet scientists have barely scratched the surface in terms of plumbing the wealth of information beneath the waves. That’s where new, surf-riding robots come in. Producer Ashley Ahearn of the public media collaborative Earth Fix has our report on data-collecting, sea-going drones.
AHEARN: At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s lab in Seattle, two scientists are standing over what looks like a chubby neon-yellow surfboard.
MEINIG: So, if you look at it, it’s a very elegant device. And we can move, we can’t move very fast but, nonetheless, we can go one to two knots on this, which is fantastic for a lot of ocean research.
AHEARN: Chris Meinig is an engineer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environment Lab. He’s looking at one of NOAA’s newest research toys - a Wave Glider.
MEINING: So what we have here is a robotic vehicle that consists of two parts. The bottom is the tractor that looks like a sideways set of Venetian blinds and it gains forward propulsion based on heave.
AHEARN: This tricked-out surfboard is powered by the rise and fall of the waves and the solar panels strapped on top. It can be remotely directed on long missions out into the open ocean. And while spending months at sea, Wave Gliders can collect loads of scientific information that gets sent back to land via satellite. Chris Sabine also works at NOAA and helped design the sensors strapped on top of their Wave Gliders.
SABINE: These data-sets are so rich that - you know, my focus is on understanding ocean acidification and CO2, but there were very interesting features that we saw in currents, that another researcher may be interested in using that information to better understand what they’re studying.
AHEARN: The sensors also collect data on water temperatures, pH, salinity and oxygen levels. Sabine says Wave Gliders will help scientists get important information directly to the people that need it.
Take the issue of ocean acidification. Every year, winds and currents cause acidic water from deep below the ocean’s surface to upwell in coastal waters. This is a natural occurrence that’s been made worse by our contribution of CO2 to the atmosphere.
And it’s bad news if you’re a shellfish farmer. Larval shellfish can’t form their shells in more acidic water and in recent years farmers have lost thousands of dollars when whole batches of baby shellfish die during acidic upwellings. Sabine says Wave Gliders could lend some predictability to the problem, by helping farmers plan when to spawn their shellfish to avoid acidic waters.
SABINE: We can say, ‘hey in two days you’re going to have this event coming into the estuary - watch out for it,’ and they’ll know ahead of time rather than seeing something happening and going ‘ooh quick! shut it all down.’
AHEARN: Scientists and shellfish farmers aren’t the only ones putting Wave Gliders to work. Bill Vass is the CEO of LiquidRobotics, the company that invented the Wave Glider.
VASS: Our biggest customers are oil and gas and defense but we’ll be branching out into fisheries, narrowing in on some wind farming opportunities and some communication and security opportunities.
AHEARN: Vass says inventing the Wave Glider was essentially like inventing and patenting the wheel of the ocean. The potential applications are endless. Oil and gas companies use them to monitor their wells and for exploration. Wave Gliders were used to assess the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf. They can be used for fisheries management to count tagged fish. They can be sent out to collect data on potential sites for offshore wind or wave power development. And they can also be rigged up with acoustic monitoring devices, which has made them an easy sell to the Navy and intelligence agencies.
VASS: We can’t really talk a lot about what the intelligence agencies use Wave Gliders for, but you can use your imagination.
AHEARN: And the price tag? A bottom-of-the-line model will run you about $200,000.
VASS: You could drop $500,000 for a really tricked-out one.
AHEARN: Can I request a color?
VASS: Yeah yeah. They come in blue, gray, white and, as scuba divers refer to it, bite-me yellow, that bright high visibility yellow they paint scuba tanks with.
AHEARN: And yes, they have had one shark attack.
VASS: It was towing a 30 meter acoustic array, that was doing a marine mammal study, and the acoustic array was wrapped around its fins which was making it swim much slower than normal. So we picked it up and it had big shark bites in its fins so the shark had obviously grabbed it and shook it and then got the array tangled around the fins.
AHEARN: The company has raised $40 million in investment money and sells close to 200 gliders a year. There are other companies designing sea-going robots, but they are mainly used for underwater work and lack the ability to network with other gliders to exchange information. I’m Ashley Ahearn in Seattle.
GELLERMAN: Our story on Wave Gliders comes to us by way of the public media collaborative: EarthFix.
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