image credit Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.Swarms of miniature robotic ocean explorers that could one day help predict where ocean currents will carry oil spills, and which marine areas should be protected.

These autonomous underwater drifters will trace the fine details that can determine underwater ocean currents of a few kilometers. These are important for understanding marine protected areas, algal blooms, oil spills and the path sewage takes after it is pumped into the ocean.

“Maybe there has been an oil spill in the ocean and we want to establish very quickly how and where the spill might move. We are developing the algorithms that will keep a swarm of autonomous underwater explorers (AUEs) coordinated so they can follow the flow of the ocean currents and give us data on the spill as it is moving around,” explained Jorge Cortes, a professor in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

In addition to predicting where oil will travel, scientists can use this information on the flow of ocean currents in order to improve their models—and ultimately their understanding—of how ocean currents operate on the scale of kilometers and what this means for ocean life and for determining where marine protected areas should be established.

According to Jules Jaffe and Peter Franks, the two Scripps Institution of Oceanography researchers, the robot swarms could aid in science’s development of marine protected areas by following currents for determining critical nursery habitats and for tracking harmful blooms of algae.

The project differs from related work on networks of underwater robots in that the robot swarms the UCSD researchers are developing are significantly smaller and less expensive. At the same time, these robot swarms will be far more capable of making use of the information they collect on the fly in order to improve the accuracy of their task at hand.

Small armies of such robots will concurrently map currents and sense the environment. The robots relay their sensed data when they surface.

The robots will work through a system under which several football sized devices are deployed in conjunction with many—tens or even hundreds—of pint-sized underwater explorers. As they move about the ocean, the smaller-sized robots will use acoustic transmissions from the “motherships” to ascertain their positions. Collectively, the entire swarms of robots will help track fine ocean currents and flows that organisms at the small scale, tiny abalone larvae, for example, experience in the ocean.

“AUEs (Autoonomous Underwater Explorers) 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. “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.”

Franks, who conducts research on marine phytoplankton, among other areas, says the new concentration on dense sampling at small scales will help resolve some of the patchiness in understanding the physical and biological properties on those scales.

“Plankton are somewhat like the balloons of the ocean floating around out there,” he said. “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.”

Further Reading:
UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering
National Science Foundation
Ocean Research Robots: A Future Vision for Ocean Observation

What do you think of this news item? Join a discussion.