Ocean of Robots

Oceanographers awarded funding for a new development of underwater robots

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    LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 24: Harbor seals and birds occupy Children's Pool Beach on January 24, 2003 in La Jolla, California. Since taking over the beach, the area has been named Seal Rock Reserve and the seals are protected from spectators. With only one beach to haul out on, the concentration of seals has attracted large predators including a great white shark seen nearby in November 2002 killing and eating a sea lion. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

    A new tool for searching underwater could help determine the size of oil spills, study red tides and discover black boxes from plane crashes and now local researchers have the money to build it. 

    Oceanographers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) in La Jolla, have been awarded nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) division of ocean sciences to develop a new breed of ocean-probing robots.

    Autonomous Underwater Explorers (AUEs) is the name of these robots, and will offer new and valuable information of oceanographic processes vital to tiny marine inhabitants.

    Jules Jaffe and Peter Franks, professors at SIO, started working together 15 years ago and each have different areas of expertise that will bring this project to an ultimate success. Jaffe is an expert in robotics and engineering while Franks is a physical oceanographer.

    "AUEs will give us information to figure out how small organisms survive, how they move in the ocean, and the physical dynamics they experience as they get around," said Franks in a recent press release issued by UCSD.

    "AUEs should improve ocean models and 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."

    These tiny robots will aid in obtaining information needed for developing marine protected areas, determining critical nursery habitats for fish and other animals, tracking harmful algae blooms, and monitoring oil spills. They will also be able to detect wreckage from an airplane crash over the ocean and determine where a black box may be located.

    For the beginning phases of the project, Jaffe and colleagues will build five to six of the soccer-ball-sized robot explorers and 20 of the smaller versions.

    With a vision for future development in the project, Jaffe hopes to involve students to building these devices. The National Science Foundation supports involving scientists in schools and hope to encourage these student with goal-oriented education.

    Along with the first award, the researchers have also been given $1.5 million from NSF's Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation initiative to design and develop the systems necessary to control the movement of AUEs.

    That aspect brings Jaffe and Franks together with researchers at the Cymer Center for Control Systems and Dynamics at the University of California at San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering and the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

    To view Jules Jaffe lecture about the 'Future Vision for Ocean Observation' click here.