Robots to cross the Pacific to harvest scientific data

November 16, 2011 6:24:32 PM PST
You think of robots having arms and legs. Four of them that will launch Thursday afternoon from San Francisco don't. They are called Wave Gliders, and they will embark on a scientific mission to gather ocean data using ocean waves and solar panels to make their way across the Pacific.

They will first take a 2,500-mile voyage to the Big Island of Hawaii, then two will split off and head to Australia -- a 6,500-mile trip -- while the other two make their way to Japan, a 7,000 to 8,000-mile crossing. If and when they reach Hawaii on the initial leg of their mission, they will set a new Guinness record for the longest voyage made by an autonomous ocean robot.

The robots should arrive in Hawaii in about 90 days, then it will take another 210 days for them to reach Japan and Australia. That should put them at their destinations around Sept. 6, 2012.

"That's one of the reasons we named them after great explorers. These little robots are going to do things that have never been done before," says Liquid Robotic CEO Bill Vass.

The robots come from Liquid Robotics in Sunnyvale, a company founded four years ago, after discovering a way to make unmanned robots that can operate at sea for extended periods of time under their own power. As company vice president Graham Hine explains, the ocean remains one of the last frontiers for exploration.

"To have the scientific community look at this broad scope of huge amount of data from this ocean crossing and tell us this is what it means for society, this is what it means for science, this is what it means for understanding the ocean, that's what we're looking for with the challenge," says Hine

The robots will send back data about every 10 minutes via satellite on salinity, water temperature, waves, weather, fluorescence and dissolved oxygen. However, human intervention is possible if a passing ship is on collision course.

"Some of them we will see through this AIS receiver," says Hine. "Large vessels will transmit their position, their course over ground where they're headed, and we'll see them coming on our shoreside systems so we'll be able to avoid them quite easily."

Liquid Robotics will provide the data to the public, but more importantly, it has invited scientists to compete for a "PacX (Pacific Crossing) Challenge Prize" to make the best use of the collected data. Research groups that plan to use the data include the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Monterey Naval Post Graduate School. The company estimates the value of this mission at $30 million to $40 million. The cost to create each of the Wave Gliders runs between $150,000 and $250,000, depending on the sensors installed.

The robots weigh about 200 pounds each. They consist of two parts -- a flotation device that stays at the surface and a submarine. They are joined by an umbilical cord that houses cables. The submarine has fins that propel the robot from wave action. The sensors are powered by solar panels.

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