SAN DIEGO, California, November 11, 2009 (ENS) – Swarms of miniature robotic floats that travel with ocean currents, sense the environment and report their findings back to researchers have been funded for development by a grant of nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation.
Researchers Jules Jaffe and Peter Franks at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego will use the funding to design and deploy autonomous underwater explorers, AUEs.
They say the AUEs could provide information about harmful algal blooms and oil spills and help scientists develop marine protected areas.
“AUEs will give us information and statistics to figure out how the small organisms survive, how they move in the ocean and the physical dynamics they experience as they get around,” said Franks, a professor of biological oceanography in the integrative oceanography division at Scripps.
“AUEs should improve our ocean models and eventually allow us to do a better job of following the weather and climate of the ocean, as well as help us understand things like carbon fluxes,” he said.
Franks, who conducts research on marine phytoplankton, says the new concentration on dense sampling at small scales will help scientists understand the physical and biological properties of these microscopic plants.
“Plankton are somewhat like the balloons of the ocean floating around out there,” said Franks. “We are trying to figure out how the ocean works at the scales that matter to the plankton. You put 100 of these AUEs in the ocean and let ‘er rip. We’ll be able to look at how they spread apart and how they move to get a sense of the physics driving the flow.”
Jaffe, a research oceanographer with Scripps’ Marine Physical Laboratory, envisions a system with several soccer-ball-size AUE devices deployed in conjunction with dozens or even hundreds of smaller AUE explorer robots.
As they move about the ocean, the smaller AUEs will use acoustic transmissions from the “mothership” AUEs to ascertain their positions, Jaffe says.
The miniature robots can help scientists develop marine protected areas by following currents for determining critical nursery habitats. They can track harmful blooms of algae and may eventually monitor events such as oil spills and airplane crashes, he says.
For marine protected areas, AUEs can help inform debates about the best areas for habitat development.
With harmful algal blooms and oil spills, the instruments can be deployed directly onto outbreak patches to gauge how they develop and change over time. In the case of an airplane crash over the ocean, AUEs should be able to track currents to determine where among the wreckage a black box may be located.
By more clearly defining localized currents and focused data about temperature, salinity, pressure and biological properties, Jaffe and Franks believe AUEs will offer new and valuable information.
Miniscule microscopes on a chip developed at CalTech may in the future be placed on the AUEs to help scientists detect what tiny plants and animals the oceanbots are encountering.
During the initial pilot phase of the project, Jaffe and members of his laboratory will build five or six of the soccer-ball-sized explorers and 20 of the smaller versions.
An outreach component of the project will enlist middle school children to build and eventually deploy the AUEs.
In a related funding award, the researchers have been given $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation’s Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation initiative for designing and developing the systems necessary to control the movement of AUEs.
That aspect of the project brings Jaffe and Franks together with researchers at the Cymer Center for Control Systems and Dynamics at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering and the San Diego Supercomputer Center.
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