5 Uses for Underwater Robotics

Humans have explored the Earth. We've flown to outer space. Yet we know little about our oceans. Experts say most of the sea is a mystery, with 99% of the ocean's floor unexplored. There is still plenty to learn about our underwater habitats, including new marine species to discover. Many are using robots to advance exploration efforts. To learn more about the uses of underwater robotics, check out the five examples below.

A New Way to Research

One robot, dubbed Scarlet Knight, is an eight-foot glider that traveled autonomously from New Jersey to Spain. The bot, built by students at Rutgers University, is designed to provide better data on how climate change is affecting the ocean.

This glider has no engine to move it forward. It relies on the ocean's currents, making a series of 10,000 dives and ascents to travel 4,600 miles. The team was able to collect data on ocean circulation, heat content and how heat moves across the Atlantic.

Using Scarlet Knight to collect scientific data is cheaper and more practical than sending people. This technology could evolve into a new way for researchers to attain data. Others say a fleet of gliders equipped with oil sensors could help detect spills.

A Look at Marine Life

At the University of Hawaii, oceanographers drop torpedo-shaped bots into eddies, spinning columns of water, hoping to collect microbial life. The current of an eddy brings deep sediment and nutrients up to the surface. Some bots gather samples of this sediment. Others swim around testing water salinity and temperatures.

The goal is to learn more about life within these vertical layers of water and how they impact the ocean. Microbes control elemental cycles and form the basis of the food chain. They can absorb carbon dioxide and draw it deep into the sea. They also produce other greenhouse gases.

Microbial life is challenging to study and, because of this, it's not well understood. Underwater robots can make the process easier and more affordable. Experts say these bots have exciting potential because they can withstand harsh environments, including high pressure.

An Unhindered Exploration

Underwater remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, controlled by operators ashore or in the water, can observe the murky depths of the sea. These devices range in size. The smallest is the size of a basketball — the biggest can match an SUV.

There are four classes of ROVs.

  • Work class: used to search the ocean floor where divers can't reach
  • Light work class: used during ship inspections to make repairs
  • Observation class: used to test water safety before dives
  • Micro/mini-class: used to reach tight, shallow depths like pipes

The U.S. Navy first tested underwater ROVs in the 1960s. In 1966, they successfully recovered a missing atomic bomb off the coast of Spain. Today, ROVs play a crucial role in several industries, including search and rescue, oil, gas, shipping and more.

A New Mining Technique

The bottom of the ocean is home to naturally occurring metallic nodules that can yield cobalt, manganese, nickel and rare earth minerals. Due to the rise in electric vehicles and wind turbines, the demand for these metals is high. Many are using robots to target prime mining operations.

One Canadian team recently completed an expedition to a spot in the Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico. This 1.7-million-square-mile patch is where most of these metallic nodules exist. The team dropped box-shaped bots equipped with coring devices into the ocean.

The robots have a dual purpose. As they collect nodules, they also bring up sediment and mud from the seafloor. Researchers use this data to ensure their mining operations aren't harming the habitat. The same Canadian team says it's developing a harvester bot, designed to run on treads and vacuum the seabed.

A Deep-Sea Dive

At the University of Delaware, the ocean robotics laboratory is home to 10 underwater robots. Perhaps the most noteworthy is Remus 600, approximately nine feet long and school-bus yellow. The vessel can travel as deep as 600 meters and features a transducer to detect marine life.

On the latest mission, Remus 600 studied the distribution of whale food sources. Because the mammals dive to such great depths — more than half a mile — they are hard for humans to observe. Robots can withstand the environment at these depths. For the first time, scientists can discover what foods whales are eating when deep below the surface.

The Remus 600 has practicality beyond whales. Using the transducer, the bot picks up unique frequencies from each organism. Researchers use these frequencies to identify what's near, whether it's a dolphin, fish or zooplankton.

Underwater robotics is making exploration cheaper and more accessible. Scientists can reach spots of the ocean that were previously untouchable. With their ability to withstand harsh environments, these bots can collect samples, observe marine life and test water temperatures. There's no doubt the future of ocean exploration starts with underwater robotics.

Picture Credit: The Official CTBTO Photostream, Flickr.com
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