Science Scope

Meet Tethys, a robot stalker that might change how oceanography is studied

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The robot is expected to change how oceanography is studied.

Researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute introduced an underwater robot called Tethys, designed to stalk marine organisms. The fish-like robot's first assignment was to observe algae blooms and map its existence below the ocean surface.

Regular autonomous underwater vehicles can only last for a few days or last for longer periods (but are extremely slow). This long-range robot can travel over long distances in a hurry.

When it zooms through the water, the bot can reach 2.25 miles an hour. The robot was built with power saving software normally found in laptops, so it can conserve its energy.

MBARI's Chief Technologist, Jim Bellingham, spent four years designing the robot and finally tested Tetys out in the real world.

"Tethys can travel to a spot in the ocean and 'park' there until something interesting happens. Once a bloom occurs, Tethys can move fast enough to follow the bloom and watch it evolve, the way a biologist on land might follow and study a herd of deer," Bellingham said in a statement.

The only way to study an algae bloom before was to randomly run into it while cruising out at sea or deploying an instrument with the hope algae would just float past.

So basically, Tethys can stalk algae! This would change how oceanography is studied, Bellingham said.

When unleashed into the world, the robot turned out to be one smart cookie. It can think for itself and change its behavior. To work in the future, the robot eventually will have to wean its way off satellite control and not depend on a human.

In October, Tethys was sent on a mission to look for patches of algae that drifted in the current. It did well during its four-day trip out at sea and had some battery power remaining when it returned.

In future experiments, Tethys won't be alone.

"These vehicles were designed to run as park of a pack," Bellingham said. The robots could operate at different speeds and carry different equipment, so it would be easier to study other types of organisms at the same time. While Bellingham admits he's starting at the bottom of the food chain, he plans on working his way up.

"We could study zooplankton grazing on phytoplankton, or fish and marine mammals feeding on krill," he added.

Photo: Todd Walsh © 2010 MBARI

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure