Scripps scientists to develop 'swarms' of miniature robotic ocean explorers

November 10, 2009

In an effort to plug gaps of knowledge about key ocean processes, scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have been awarded nearly $1 million from the National Science Foundation to develop a new breed of ocean-probing instruments.

Scripps researchers Jules Jaffe and Peter Franks will be spearheading an effort to design and deploy autonomous underwater explorers, or AUEs, which will trace fine details of fundamental oceanographic mechanisms that are vital to tiny marine inhabitants.

While oceanographers have been skilled in detailing broad ocean processes, a need has emerged to zero in on functions unfolding at the small scale. By more clearly defining localized currents and focused data about temperature, salinity, pressure and biological properties, Jaffe and Franks believe AUEs will offer new and valued information about a range of oceanic phenomena. The miniature robots also can aid in science's development of marine protected areas by following currents for determining critical nursery habitats, tracking harmful blooms of algae and potentially even contributing to monitor events such as oil spills and airplane crashes.

"The AUEs will fill in gaps between existing marine technologies," said Jaffe, a research oceanographer with Scripps' Marine Physical Laboratory. "They will provide a whole new kind of information."

The AUEs will work through a system under which several soccer-ball sized AUE devices are deployed in conjunction with many--tens or even hundreds--of pint-sized AUE explorers. As they move about the ocean, the smaller-sized AUEs will use acoustic transmissions from the "mothership" AUEs to ascertain their positions. Collectively, the entire "swarms" of AUEs will help track fine ocean currents and flows that organisms at the small scale, tiny abalone larvae, for example, experience in the ocean.

"AUEs will give us information and statistics to figure out how the small organisms survive, how they move in the ocean and the physical dynamics they experience as they get around," said Franks, a professor of biological oceanography in the Integrative Oceanography Division at Scripps. "AUEs should improve our ocean models and eventually allow us to do a better job of following the weather and climate of the ocean, as well as help us understand things like carbon fluxes."

Franks, who conducts research on marine phytoplankton, among other areas, says the new concentration on dense sampling at small scales will help resolve some of the patchiness in understanding the physical and biological properties on those scales.

"Plankton are somewhat like the balloons of the ocean floating around out there," he said. "We are trying to figure out how the ocean works at the scales that matter to the plankton. You put 100 of these AUEs in the ocean and let 'er rip. We'll be able to look at how they spread apart and how they move to get a sense of the physics driving the flow."

During the initial pilot phase of the project, Jaffe and members of his laboratory will build five or six of the soccer-ball-sized explorers and 20 of the smaller versions. An outreach component of the project will enlist school children to build and ultimately deploy AUEs.

For marine protected areas, AUEs can help inform debates about the best areas for habitat development. With harmful algal blooms and oil spills, the instruments can be deployed directly onto outbreak patches to gauge how they develop and change over time. In the case of an airplane crash over the ocean, AUEs should be able to track currents to determine where among the wreckage a black box may be located.

In a related funding award, the researchers have also been given $1.5 million from NSF's Cyber-Enabled Discovery and Innovation initiative for designing and developing the systems necessary to control the movement of AUEs. That aspect brings Jaffe and Franks together with researchers at the Cymer Center for Control Systems and Dynamics at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering and the San Diego Supercomputer Center.
-end-
More information about AUEs can be seen in a Birch Aquarium at Scripps Perspectives on Ocean Science presentation by Jaffe: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbNx2K1ttLQ.Note to broadcast and cable producers: UC San Diego provides an on-campus satellite uplink facility for live or pre-recorded television interviews. Please phone or e-mail the media contact listed above to arrange an interview.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography:
scripps.ucsd.edu

Scripps News:
scrippsnews.ucsd.edu

Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at UC San Diego, is one of the oldest, largest and most important centers for global science research and education in the world. The National Research Council has ranked Scripps first in faculty quality among oceanography programs nationwide. Now in its second century of discovery, the scientific scope of the institution has grown to include biological, physical, chemical, geological, geophysical and atmospheric studies of the earth as a system. Hundreds of research programs covering a wide range of scientific areas are under way today in 65 countries. The institution has a staff of about 1,300, and annual expenditures of approximately $155 million from federal, state and private sources. Scripps operates one of the largest U.S. academic fleets with four oceanographic research ships and one research platform for worldwide exploration.

University of California - San Diego

Related Marine Protected Areas Articles from Brightsurf:

Protected areas help waterbirds adapt to climate change
Climate change pushes species distribution areas northward. However, the expansion of species ranges is not self-evident due to e.g. habitat degradation and unsustainable harvesting caused by human activities.

Scientists reveal urgent solutions for boosting Protected Areas effectiveness
New research published today in Nature identifies the actions needed from governments, private entities, and conservation organisations to boost the effectiveness of Protected Areas and other area-based conservation efforts in protecting biodiversity and providing benefits to people.

More than 90% of protected areas are disconnected
Ongoing land clearing for agriculture, mining and urbanisation is isolating and disconnecting Earth's protected natural areas from each other, a new study shows.

Protected areas can 'double' imperilled species populations
A University of Queensland-led research team has revealed that many endangered mammal species are dependent on protected areas, and would likely vanish without them.

Reef manta rays make long-term use of marine-protected areas
Understanding the key areas where migratory species like the reef manta ray like to congregate is crucial for their future conservation.

Are protected areas effective at maintaining large carnivore populations?
A recent study, led by the University of Helsinki, used a novel combination of statistical methods and an exceptional data set collected by hunters to assess the role of protected areas for carnivore conservation in Finland.

Protected areas worldwide at risk of invasive species
Protected areas across the globe are effectively keeping invasive animals at bay, but the large majority of them are at risk of invasions, finds a involving UCL and led by the Chinese Academy of Science, in a study published in Nature Communications.

Underprotected marine protected areas in a global biodiversity hotspot
Through the assessment of the 1,062 MPAs in the Mediterranean Sea, covering 6% of the Mediterranean Basin, a research team has shown that 95% of the total area protected lacks regulations to reduce human impacts on biodiversity.

Warming climate undoes decades of knowledge of marine protected areas
A new study highlights that tropical coral reef marine reserves can offer little defence in the face of climate change impacts.

Caribbean sharks in need of large marine protected areas
Governments must provide larger spatial protections in the Greater Caribbean for threatened, highly migratory species such as sharks, is the call from a diverse group of marine scientists including Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) PhD Candidate, Oliver Shipley.

Read More: Marine Protected Areas News and Marine Protected Areas Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.