Swarms of networked robots to probe the ocean

$3 million Nation Science Foundation project builds advanced underwater bots

Scripps AUEs
Swarms of robots will soon be scooting across the ocean floor looking to monitor everything from protected marine areas and fish migration patterns to  a variety of other biological activities. 

The robotic swarms come courtesy of the National Science Foundation (NSF) who has awarded nearly $3 million to scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to develop, build and manage an advanced breed of ocean-probing instruments known as autonomous underwater explorers, or AUEs. The group got $1 million for the robots and $1.5 million to develop a system to control them. 

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Researchers envision that the AUEs - which come in 2 sizes and look like soccer balls --  will work in packs with many tens or hundreds of  pint-sized bots. Collectively, the entire swarm of AUEs will track ocean currents, temperature, salinity, pressure and biological properties. During the pilot phase of the project, Scripps will build five to six of the soccer-ball-sized explorers and 20 of the smaller versions. 

The lead Scripps researcher, Jules Jaffe wrote in a white paper that his group wants to build "a new class of ocean sensing, whereby free-floating underwater devices operate autonomously and collaborate through an acoustic underwater network between them."  The network aspect of the AUE may be the most challenging aspect of the project, researchers stated. 

From the white paper: "We have to develop topology control mechanisms, routing strategies and methods for tracking drogues' locations. These have to be extremely energy-efficient, while also incorporating adaptive mechanisms to deal with the uncontrollable drogue mobility behavior. All of these present challenging new problems to the underwater networking community. 

Direct communication between each individual drogue and surface elements, such as buoys or vessels, is not always possible. Our drogues are by design free-floating and are at the mercy of the uncontrollable motion of the oceans. As a result, they unavoidably move beyond the direct communication range of surface elements, as the range of underwater modems is limited to a few miles.  Instead, a multi-hop ad-hoc acoustic network is needed to interconnect the drogues. Surface buoys and vessels link to the underwater drogue network and relay data to land-based laboratories and users via traditional RF wireless technologies." 

Jaffe also wrote: "We envision swarms of such freely drifting drogues following the effluents from sewers, measuring three-dimensional features of coastal circulation, and partaking in week- or month-long missions of data collection. Physical and biological data gathering would now become available to oceanographic scientists at space-time scales that were heretofore unattainable." 

The miniature robots will aid in obtaining information needed for developing marine protected areas, determining critical nursery habitats for fish and other animals, tracking harmful algae blooms, and monitoring oil spills, the NSF stated. 

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