Yesterday, four Wave Gliders—self propelled robots, each about the size of a dolphin—left San Francisco for a journey that combined will total 60,000 kilometers. Built by Liquid Robotics, the robots will travel together to Hawaii, then split into pairs, one pair heading to Japan, the other to Australia. Waves will power their propulsion systems and the sun will power the sensors that will be measuring things like water salinity, temperature, clarity, and oxygen content; collecting weather data, and gathering information on wave features and currents. It’s not going to be an easy journey—the little robots will face rough weather and have to dodge big ships.
But if it were easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting, say Liquid Robots executives. The point, explains Graham Hine, senior vice president of operations, is to “push the boundaries of science, and prove to the world that this type of technology is ready to increase our understanding of the ocean.” (Hine names the crafts in honor of great explorers in the video below.)
The data from the fleet of robots is being streamed via the Iridium satellite network and made freely available—in an accessible form on Google Earth’s Ocean Showcase, and in a more complete form to researchers who register. Liquid Robotics is eager to see what the scientific community does with all the data—so eager, that it’s asking for project abstracts, and will give a prize to the top five proposals—six months use of a Wave Glider optimized to collect whatever information the winner needs.
Remotely piloted submersible gliders have made impressive journeys, though none so far as the group of Wave Gliders, which aim to break the Guinness world record for longest unmanned ocean voyage. Other gliders have typically spent most of their time underwater, just popping up to send data. They've been very power efficient, but rely entirely on batteries, and do need to be picked up occasionally for battery recharging.
Liquid Robotics’ technology is different. For one, the Wave Glider is a boat, not a submarine—it sits on top of the water. That lets it pick up information about weather, waves, and currents that aren’t available to submarine. It moves much differently—the submarine gliders propel themselves by repeatedly changing their buoyancy; the Wave Gliders use the motion of surface waves to paddle underwater fins. Because most of the body of each craft sits above the water, it gets a lot of sunlight, so the deck is covered with solar cells that recharge the battery that powers the sensors and transmitters. (Conveniently, the splashing of the waves keeps the solar panels spotless.)
While this journey is a decidedly noncommercial one, Liquid Robotics is a real business; it sells the $200,000 or so robots to energy companies who spend a vast amount of money monitoring offshore rigs and collecting oceanographic data. It also has customers today among government and research organizations.
In the future, Liquid Robotics expects its Wave Gliders to be used to monitor currents in shipping lanes, guard wild fisheries, run offshore fish farms, and make contribute to the understanding of the role of the oceans in the earth’s carbon cycle.
Says Java father James Gosling, who now heads up Liquid Robotics’ software operation: Liquid Robotics has “a technically interesting challenge, that could save the world, and is economically viable—these three things don’t come together that often.”
Images: Liquid Robotics; video: Tekla Perry/IEEE Spectrum
UPDATED November 23, 2011, 12:05 p.m. Edits made to clarify that 60,000 kilometers is the total combined distance for the four wave gliders.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.