A robot helps humans search a shipwreck

Robots in the World: Underwater Bots Advancing Marine Research

Our Robots in the World series looks at the large and small ways robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence are changing our lives. We’ve already looked at how humans are collaborating with robots to make hospital visits safer and less scary.

The ocean is a great place to start learning about the development of robotic technology. Robots perform a variety of tasks, from raising fish to analyzing shipwrecks, and are helping marine biologists, water engineers, landscape developers, and even the police do their jobs better.

Keep reading to learn about all the ways robots help with marine research and exploration.

Why is Marine Research Important?

Considering the ocean has been part of human life from the beginning of time, we know surprisingly little about its tides, environment, and the life forms it supports. In 2013, the Schmidt Ocean Institute reported that we haven’t even fully mapped the earth’s seafloor. Only between five and 15 percent of the ocean floor has been mapped by traditional techniques.

“We still know more details about the surface of Mars [than the seafloor],” environmental journalist Starre Vartan writes at Mother Nature Network. “The red planet has been carefully mapped by orbiting satellites over the past 15 years; its map resolution is 20 meters (66 feet). But the ocean’s resolution … is at best about 5 kilometers (or 3.1 miles).”

Understanding the ocean is a monumental task, and even the hardest working researchers can’t make a dent in our knowledge gaps. This is why they’re turning to robots to help collect data. And as the data collected increases, researchers can then turn into problem solvers to keep our oceans healthy and solve societal issues.

Mermaid Robots Make Coral Research Easier

Computer scientists at the University of Stanford recently developed OceanOne, a humanoid diving robot that travels to wrecks and coral reefs too deep for humans.

The robot was created to bridge the gap between human divers and deepwater vessels, Bjorn Carey at Stanford University reports. Existing submarines lack the skill of human divers; they can’t delicately collect samples and are hard to maneuver unless you’re familiar with their joysticks. It’s almost easier to break artifacts with submarines than collect them. Carey says OceanOne is more like a robo-mermaid, with human-like hands and a face, but a tail with batteries and thrusters.

“While a human diver is constrained by pesky things like air and pressure when doing underwater research or excavations, a robot can stay underwater for much longer, collecting samples in hostile underwater environments,” Mary Beth Griggs at Popular Science writes.

She reports that scientists can feel exactly what the robot is doing, which means they can understand if it has the right grip on an artifact or if it is struggling to handle items. Scientists feel like they’re on a dive and holding objects, even when they’re hundreds of feet above the wreck.

Robo-Fish Protect Seaports and Check Infrastructure

Humanoids aren’t the only robots created for underwater exploration. Robot animals are helping humans protect busy ports and catch criminals. For example, Boston Engineering developed a BIOSwimmer, a tuna-shaped robot that acts like a real fish and blends in with sea life while it explores harbors, piers, and vessels.

This robo-tuna can swim up to 46 mph and is used to detect smuggled goods, often stored in the hulls of ships. The U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection would know exactly which ships to search and where. The robo-tuna can be armed with explosive devices used to prevent terrorist attacks or underwater military threats.

Many developers use fish-shaped robots to conduct research. The team at Envirotech reported on another robo-fish meant to combat water pollution. Chemical sensors detect pollution, sending the information to researchers. Instead of having humans collect hundreds of samples, the robo-fish can make thousands of records and paint a better picture of the water’s health.

A diver gets ready to explore the seafloor

Curious Robots Explore New Life or Interesting Oceanic Features

One of the fundamental differences between robots and humans is curiosity. A robot might check water samples or certain animal populations, but humans would notice a strange new organism or explore outside of their job duties. This is starting to change.

One of the research teams at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has started using “curious” robots that dive with researchers and take photos of things they find interesting. One robot sent back photos that looked like red fuzz in a low-oxygen zone, prompting researchers to send the robot back to learn more. The scientists discovered they were a swarm of crabs, something the humans might have missed without robotic help.

As robots become more free-thinking and able to explore curious anomalies, researchers will be able to send them on more remote missions. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute has a fleet of drone robots that never tire and survive shark bites while roaming the seas collecting data.

Along with tracking data points such as salinity, temperature, and oxygen levels, these drones also map the ocean floor as they travel.

Autonomous Research Vessels Can Collect Data Year Round

Along with small-scale autonomous research robots, research developers are working to create autonomous ships to collect data and send it back to researchers. The Mayflower Autonomous Research Ship is just one example of this. Developed in the UK, the vessel is scheduled to launch in 2020 as the world’s first autonomous, clean energy ship.

In the same way that human divers are limited, humans on research vessels create their own set of restrictions:

  • They take up space with bedding, kitchens, and toilets.
  • They limit what can be studied based on the focus of research.
  • They are limited as to how long they can stay on a ship before they need to return home to their organization and their families.

With an autonomous ship, limitless data points can be collected constantly and shared with researchers across the world.

“While advances in technology have propelled land and air-based transport to new levels of intelligent autonomy, it has been a different story on the sea,” Brett Phaneuf, managing director of MSubs, says at Shuttleworth Design, a power yacht manufacturer working in partnership with both MSubs and Plymouth University.

“If we can put a rover on Mars and have it autonomously conduct research, why can’t we sail an unmanned vessel across the Atlantic Ocean and, ultimately, around the globe?”

Robotic Plankton Mimic Ocean Life

Researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego developed underwater robots that act like plankton. The goal was to simulate plankton movements in the lab to better understand ocean currents (and how plankton get pushed around) along with the behavior of these fascinating organisms.

The Scripps Institute deployed a swarm of 16 grapefruit-sized robots in the ocean with the goal of tracking how they move and react to each other.

“Now that they’ve been built and tested, these swarming sensors could be put to all kinds of uses,” science writer Amina Khan at the LA Times writes. “From monitoring oil spills and red tides to exploring the behavior of other sea creatures – for example, by listening to the calls of whales, or by tracking animals that start off as larvae on or near shores and whose complex life cycles force them to move through the ocean in ways that researchers don’t yet fully understand.”

Wave Energy Offers Clean and Available Power Sources

About 70 percent of the world is covered by water. If we could find a way to harness wave energy then our overall dependence on fossil fuels and other environmentally-damaging resources would significantly decrease.

The team at Liquid Robotics recently developed The Wave Glider, which looks kind of like a paddleboard or raft. This robot uses energy at the ocean’s surface and solar panels to power its propeller and propulsion system. It’s mobile and can navigate ocean conditions including hurricanes, high currents, and doldrums.

This raft is another example of a small-scale autonomous research vessel. Sensors collect data on various ocean factors and send it back to scientists to better understand ocean conditions and information.

The Wave Glider isn’t the only tool that uses primarily wave power. Business Green deputy editor Madeleine Cuff writes that startups want to develop manmade coral that can harvest ocean waves while breaking down potentially-destructive waves.

“Convincing island and coastal communities to take a chance on piloting an expensive new piece of marine energy technology – particularly when solar can be deployed at ever decreasing costs – is a tall order,” she says. “But with the co-benefit of coastal protection, it starts to make sense.”

Considering ocean currents have an energy density 800 times larger than wind, the potential for tapping into wave energy, whether to power research robots or help the environment, is enormous.

Aquaculture Tech Feeds Populations Without Draining the Seas

Many environmental researchers are concerned about feeding future populations sustainably, which has led to the development of aquaculture. According to Brian Wang at Next Big Future, UCLA researchers estimate that there are over 11 million square km across the globe suitable for fish or bivalve aquaculture. If every square foot of this was developed for fish farms, the world could produce 15 billion tons of fish per year, more than 100 times the current global seafood consumption.

Naturally, this is unlikely because not every inch of the ocean can be turned into an aqua farm. However, if even three percent is used to farm fish, it could help communities that are dependent on the oceans to survive.

The rise of aquaculture has caught the eye of technology experts as well as biologists. Kampachi Farms is working to move aquaculture further offshore and farming in the open ocean, making it safer for humans and local fish populations.

The organization developed the Velella Beta, a 132-cubic-meter aquapod connected to a 65-foot schooner. While the aquapod might look like your child’s geometry project with fish floating around in it, the results are promising. After the first trial, there was a 98 percent survival rate with the fish reaching maturity in roughly half the time expected.

Most marine researchers and robotics experts believe we’re just at the tip of robotic use in the ocean. Over the next few years, the use of robotic technology will revolutionize what we know about underwater ecosystems and help environmentalists protect the organisms that live there.

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