I robot. Aye science!

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I robot. Aye science!

As deadly American drones work the skies over Afghanistan and Pakistan, we got to wondering how similar remote-control approaches are contributing to science. In science, as in war, leaving the staff behind can slash costs and allow sustained exploration of no-go zones.

Part of the story is propulsion: New science vehicles can travel long distances through the ocean and atmosphere with minimum energy. Brains-on-board also matter: Computers enable these super-sensors to make decisions and work long stretches with little or no back-seat driving.

The result is a lot of science per gallon.

Although the vehicles we’ll look at have scientific purposes, they get major financial and technical support from the Department of Defense, proving that military and peaceful pursuits are inextricably linked in extreme environments.

Header says: 'Sentry on Duty'

If you dig the deep ocean, WHOI — the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod — is a good place to be. The renowned saltwater scientific outfit has a new, deep-water explorer that works without a lifeline.


Man steadies a dangling yellow submarine with red fins. A toothy grin is painted on the front

Photo: Erich Horgan, WHOI
First you grin, then you dive! To deepen our understanding of the ocean, the autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry is happy to explore the top 2.7 miles of the ocean. That slippery shape allows easy horizontal and vertical movement.

Meet Sentry, which can take photos and make chemical and geophysical measurements down to 4,500 meters depth, and has worked two high-profile environmental issues: global warming through methane release, and BP’s Deepwater disaster.

Sentry has been used to look for “cold seeps,” regions of the seafloor that release large amounts of methane, says Chris German, WHOI’s chief scientist for deep submergence. “Cold seeps are like the overlooked younger sisters of hydrothermal vents,” the “black smokers” that release superheated fluids and anchor unique ecosystems at the sea floor, usually in mid-ocean.

Cold seeps are located closer to the continents, and “are not as spectacular thermally or geologically, but they do have some of the same chemistry,” says German, “and a lot of the same kinds of animals, even the exact same species.” Cold seeps may explain the distribution of deep-sea organisms around the ocean, he adds. “We want to understand … whether animals are using these locations as stepping stones.”

Most cold seeps were found by accident, but German thought Sentry could detect subtle chemical clues, and last October, he got to test that idea at an underwater landslide off the coast of Norway. The landslide had released pressure on a material called methane hydrate, and a large amount of methane was bubbling from the seafloor mud, creating a “mud volcano.”

Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and given the staggering amount of methane held in methane hydrates, such releases could create a nightmare feedback: warming releases methane, which traps more heat, causing more warming that releases more methane.

tiny sentry robotGetting engulfed

By prowling around the known cold seep near Norway, German confirmed the detection hypothesis.

Then, the day after Sentry returned to Woods Hole, a real-world opportunity appeared for the new technique.


Thinly branched coral covered with brown goop, a red and white starfish wraps its legs around the branches

Photo: Lophelia II 2010, NOAA OER and BOEMRE
This deepwater coral is downstream of the destroyed BP well in the Gulf of Mexico. In December, Sentry helped find similar coral that was not damaged by the BP spill. The brown goop covering this coral is likely crude oil, and the attached sea star is bleached white, another likely sign of oil damage.

Overhead view of brownish-green rocky seafloor, a few pinkish flora scattered about rocks

To assess damage after BP’s blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, Sentry helped scientists locate a site for long-term monitoring of deepwater coral like these.

Biologist Charles Fisher at Penn State was about to embark on a mission into the aftermath of BP’s blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and he wanted help locating a coral patch to compare to another he’d already located 1,200 meters deep, 11 kilometers southwest of the blowout.
That coral was coated with a brown goop that looked suspiciously like crude oil. Could Sentry locate, for long-term comparison purposes, a similar coral outside the oil plume?
Fisher was part of a National Science Foundation-sponsored “rapid response” cruise to the Gulf, but German was still unpacking. “We’d have two weeks to turn around and get going, and I went to our guys Monday morning and asked, ‘Can you do this?’”

The maintenance crew figured out who would miss what weekend, and they agreed to do it, German says.

Cold seeps and deepwater coral in the Gulf of Mexico are linked, German explains, because the coral live on bare rock, which is often carbonate, and carbonate rock forms at cold seeps when methane is oxidized into carbon dioxide. “So beneath every healthy deep coral, is an active or historic cold seep.”

Suddenly, a theoretically interesting search technique became relevant to the biggest American oil spill in a century.

tiny sentry robot“Flying” with a map

Based on oil-industry data about the sea bottom, Sentry visited one location southeast of the Macondo well and found no coral. But at the second location, German says, “We hit pay dirt. We flew backward and forward, and found an active cold seep and evidence for tube worms, mussels and coral.”

Ocean-floor research seldom moves so fast, German says, and within hours, he was one of three people to visit the spot in Alvin. “In 36 hours, we went from nothing other than a hunch, to having a topographic map and photos,” German says. “We dove to the sea floor, and there was no mysterious driving around in the dark. Within 15 minutes, we drove to the site because we had a perfect map of where to go.”

In fact, German was holding a fresh, glossy photo of the target, taken less than two days previously.

tiny sentry robotSub-terra cognita? Not!

And so is the ocean bottom, as people often say, still less familiar than the far side of the moon? German insists that it still is, despite years of research and an increasingly capable flotilla of deep-sea ships. “In December, in the Gulf, I could see at least 10 to 20 oil rigs… but I’m pretty sure, driving across that seafloor a couple of hours offshore from the United States, that nobody ever laid eyes on it before.”
A recent survey of marine biodiversity shows a chain of ignorance stretching across the Pacific, located near regions of extremely high biodiversity near the Philippines and Australia, German says. “In many of those locations, they’re 300 miles square, there have been fewer than 50 biological measurements in the history of the ocean. This is a chain across the South Pacific ocean, the single biggest contiguous ecosystem on the planet, and it has not been studied.”
And that’s the rule, not the exception, German says. “Close to one-half of the planet is at least 3,000 meters deep, and it’s much further away [and deeper] than the Gulf. From satellite altimetry we have an idea where the bumps are on the seabed, but we don’t know what’s going on; we have a vanishingly small idea.”

header='Gliding beneath the seas'

Two men in orange uniforms on boat deck guiding a hanging yellow torpedo-like instrument out of its case

Image: Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington
Engineers Avery Snyder and Adam Huxtable ready a Seaglider for a 51-day icy swim between Canada and Greenland, in Davis Strait.

Deep water may be the sexiest place in oceanography, but long-term studies are also difficult and expensive in shallow waters, especially if they are remote, icy, stormy, or all three. Propellers, the standard way of moving through water, require a lot of energy and quickly drain batteries on artificial fish.

Gliding — think of soaring like a hawk as opposed to flapping like a sparrow — is a much more conservative approach.

And gliding is the MO of Seaglider, a project built by the University of Washington with money from the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation. Using battery power, the glider alters its buoyancy, causing it to rise or fall through the water. By altering its center of gravity and adjusting its fins, the metal fish moves horizontally with minimal amounts of electric current.

How minimal? In 2009, a Seaglider traveled a record 3,050 miles through the North Pacific during a 9-month journey, without the caress of a human hand or an electric transfusion.

Craig Lee, a principal oceanographer with the Seaglider project, explains how an artificial fish worked solo under the ice in Davis Strait.

Costing “only” about $100,000 apiece, about 60 gliders are working around the globe, says Craig Lee, a principal oceanographer at UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory, recording basics like temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and optical characteristics of its surroundings.

In 2008, south of Iceland, gliders and floats studied carbon uptake by phytoplankton — floating plants that bloom in spring and play a major role in the global carbon cycle. The goal was to follow “parcels” of water during the entire bloom — which ends after some weeks when plankton are eaten or sink in the water. Both processes can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for long-term storage, and therefore have implications for global warming.

“We were trying to learn what drives the carbon flow,” says Lee. “Nobody had done this before: the Seagliders and the buoys had the persistence, the ability to be there for the entire duration of the bloom. You would have to schedule a ship one year ahead, and … if you got there on time, it would be too expensive to keep the ship out there for the whole bloom.”

small image of seaglider robot If ice is nice, under ice is nicer!

In 2009, a Seaglider spent 51 days in Davis Strait, the frigid water separating Greenland and Baffin Island, traveling more than 450 miles under the ice. The Strait is a chief source of melt-water from the frozen Arctic Ocean.

Climatologists worry that a rush of cold, fresh water through the Strait could alter the warm Gulf Stream and freeze Northern Europe.


Yellow torpedo swims through cables with instruments attached anchored to seafloor at varied depths

Image: Applied Physics Laboratory, U. of Washington
Davis Strait already has strings of scientific instruments, but Seaglider can cover more of the same waters, enlarging the stock of data in a location that influences the critical Gulf Stream.

Getting measurements from Davis Strait is expensive and dangerous, especially considering how much of it is under ice. But the Seaglider did just fine, says Lee. “This was very exciting, that ability to stay out there for a long time, and the ability to get to places that otherwise would be difficult. In winter in the North Atlantic, nobody wants to be there…”

The fish navigated under the ice using five anchored sonar beacons that created an undersea version of GPS, Lee says. Ten times, using its software, the glider found holes in the ice, poked its nose through them, and phoned home via satellite telephone. “It tries to sense ice by looking at the temperature of the water,” says Lee. “It emits a ping and tries determine whether ice is overhead, and it has a climate map that tells it, for a given position at a given time, is ice likely to be overhead? Using all that information, it decides whether to surface.”

During those famous North Atlantic storms, “It just keeps working, it does just fine, continues to navigate, continues to report. We’ve been in 40-foot seas, with 60- to 80-knot winds, and everybody’s happy, although it takes a little longer to get a phone call through.”

The glider carries a quarter for the phone call, but no Dramamine…

header reads:  Jet-fueled hawkeye

A fruit of the military’s desire to see everything from a safe vantage, Global Hawk is a secretive, high-flying, pilot-free jet that can fly at 60,000 feet for 30 hours, non-stop.


Overhead view of two planes flying; front plane has large wingspan, back plane is smaller with propellers

Global Hawk is a high-tech surveillance plane temporarily drafted as a high-tech, hands-off environmental observatory that can fly 12 miles high for 30 hours. The propeller plane studies Hawk’s wake.

For its occasional forays into peaceful work, Global Hawk carries a large cargo of scientific instruments that can monitor light, pollution, ozone, water vapor, weather, clouds, incoming and outgoing radiation, even particles smaller than 1 millionth of a meter across.

The Hawk, which flew scientific missions from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California in April, 2010, can also be used for earth observation, such as tracking algal blooms in the ocean, vegetation on land, and various resource issues.

Hawk has tracked pollution from Asia above the North Pacific as it moves toward North America and looked at large-scale atmospheric circulation, which influences weather and the distribution of radiation-blocking high-altitude ozone.

We could not get through to a source at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which plays a role in Hawk’s science, but we grabbed a press release issued after Hawk’s first environmental flight.

According to Paul Newman, an atmospheric scientist from NASA, “The Global Hawk is a revolutionary aircraft for science because of its enormous range and endurance. No other science platform provides this much range and time to sample rapidly evolving atmospheric phenomena. This mission is our first opportunity to demonstrate the unique capabilities of this plane, while gathering atmospheric data in a region that is poorly sampled.”


Aerial view of expansive cloud system, swirling in the center; underbelly of back of plane at top of frame

Photo: August 28, 2010, NASA/NOAA
Make you a bit giddy? Global Hawk eyes tropical storm Frank near Baja California. Global Hawk operates above most airplanes, but below satellites, filling a gap in atmospheric data that could help weather forecasting and studies of pollution, global warming and ozone depletion.
Rise and shine, repeat

Kyle Grindley, a Scripps engineer, helped design the SOLO-TREC, an underwater vehicle that can operate all by itself. Ten cylinders surrounding the central core hold a wax that melts as temperature increases; the resulting expansion drives an electric generator to power all Solo systems.

In their quest for data on the deep, scientists have gotten a trickle of info from sensors attached to deep-diving marine mammals. In November, 2009, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography launched SOLO TREC (Sounding Oceanographic Lagrangrian Observer Thermal RECharging vehicles; glad you asked?), a bobber that can sink 500 meters into the ocean, then return to the surface to report via satellite to scientists who may prefer sipping lattes at a Java Joint to crowding the rail on a topsy-turvy research ship.

Let’s call this Solo, and let’s agree that it’s a strange vessel. Solo can adjust its buoyancy, but lacks propellers and cannot drive laterally, so its location is at the mercy of the currents.

Solo records basic ocean conditions, but the real accomplishment is proving that its power system needs no recharging and could, theoretically, operate more or less forever – or at least until it breaks or barnacles or plants foul the fish up and slow it down.

Looking like a giant fishing float, Solo rises and sinks in the ocean through a novel electric generator driven by changes in ocean temperature.

Solo had already completed 300 dives by March, 2010, and although it sounds like a perpetual motion machine, it actually sucks its energy from the ocean as it rises toward the surface:

The ocean warms and melts a waxy material in 10 exterior tubes;

Pressure rises, forcing liquid wax through a hydraulic motor that generates electricity that is stored in batteries;

The current activates instruments and the buoyancy control system, which causes Solo to sink and then rise again, and the cycle continues.

According to Yi Chao of the Jet Propulsion Lab, a Solo principal investigator, “This technology to harvest energy from the ocean will have huge implications for how we can measure and monitor the ocean and its influence on climate.”

Funded by NASA and the U.S. Navy, Solo’s technology is also obviously useful for monitoring animals and the movement of ships and submarines.

– David Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Global Hawk mission page.
  2. YouTube: Glimpse at Global Hawk.
  3. Sentry’s expedition in the Gulf.
  4. Video: how Sentry works.
  5. Seaglider and climate change research.
  6. Seaglider specs.
  7. Warm and cold water patches power underwater probe.
  8. Tracking SOLO-TREC.
  9. Autonomous robots invade retail warehouses.
  10. Autonomous robots blog.
  11. Discovery news: autonomous robots.
  12. Dying coral at Gulf oil spill site.