Thinking Tech

Unmanned sea drones breaking world records

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Innovation in unmanned sea drones leads to a world record and new, completely autonomous robots for the U.S. Navy.

It’s been a just over a month since four unmanned Wave Gliders left San Francisco embarking on a 300-day voyage across the Pacific enroute to Japan and Australia. They are self-propelled and remotely piloted and will set a world record for the longest distance ever traveled by an unmanned ocean vehicle.

The world-traveling gliders are the jewel in the crown for Liquid Robotics. Smart Planet wrote about the $22 mil Liquid Robotics secured back in June.

More recently, in another sea glider project, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) with researchers from MIT and University of Southern California, have successfully developed completely autonomous undersea gliders. Scientists developed new algorithms that allow the gliders to make their own decisions without any humans in the loop.

The purpose of the marathon trip with the Liquid Robotics' gliders is to prove the worthiness of such gliders, and to collect data along the way, on water salinity, temperature, oxygen content, presence of crude oil, as well as wave and wind features. The gliders use wave energy with the help of underwater fins for propulsion, so no refueling needed. The data sensors and transmitters are run on batteries recharged by solar cells on the tops of the vehicles.

You can follow the expedition virtually via Google Earth by registering with Liquid Robotics. All collected data will be transmitted in real time via satellites and also available to registrants.

The gliders cost about $200,000 and Liquid Robotics sees the potential to use them for all kinds of tasks, including monitor currents in shipping lanes, guard wild fisheries, and document ocean climate change.

From the Liquid Robotics press release:

“These Wave Gliders are much like small ‘spacecraft’ that open up new opportunities for robotic exploration,” said Ed Lu, chief of innovative applications at Liquid Robotics, in a press release. “I challenge all scientists who are interested in advancing ocean exploration to take advantage of this unique opportunity. What scientific questions can we address with this new and unique data set?”

The work done at the Office of Naval Research is motivated by more of a defense strategy. The algorithm developed by their researchers takes into account what the user’s sensor priorities are and determines the best route given current ocean conditions. So the unmanned glider will map out the best mission based on variables it decides are important. Researchers successfully proved that the robots are able to accurately determine when an area is more interesting (for scientists or naval officers) than another area.

These gliders have been a terrific first test for the new algorithm but the researchers say it can also be applied to other land-based machines and robots.

[via Armed With Science]

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure