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Innovators in the News

5/8/12 - Innovative 'bot to ply Gulf of Maine

(Reprint from Portland Press Herald, May 3, 2012) The newest ocean research tool in New England looks like a surfboard, but it acts like a surveillance drone.

This Wave Glider robot is similar to one that is being launched off the Maine coast today.

An ocean-going robot known as a Wave Glider is being launched off the Maine coast today for a six- to eight-week test run. Unmanned and remotely operated, it will collect data on ocean conditions in the Gulf of Maine and identify the locations of salmon, sturgeon and other fish that are tagged with sound-emitting devices.

While making its way through the gulf at 1-2 mph, the 7-foot robot will be monitored and controlled from shore. It requires no fuel because it uses waves for propulsion.

The same device is being used for ocean science purposes in the Gulf of Mexico and on the West Coast, but this is thought to be the first time one is being put to use on the East Coast.

Neal Pettigrew, a professor of physical oceanography at the University of Maine who's involved in the project, remembers when scientists had to go to sea for days, weeks or even months on costly expeditions to conduct some of the same research that can now be done with unmanned, remotely operated vehicles such as the Wave Glider.

Nowadays, Pettigrew can see their locations and the measurements they're making and have them change directions — all from a computer at the university.

"Everything is incredibly different now," he said.

Drones — unmanned aircraft, ships or other types of vehicles guided by remote control — have gained popularity in recent years in the military, in law enforcement, in science and in other fields. They are relatively inexpensive and flexible and can cut time and costs dramatically.

Marine scientists for years have used so-called remotely operated vehicles: tethered robots that allow researchers to make observations and collect samples from the ocean depths while remaining on the surface.

Satellite communication has made possible other types of so-called autonomous underwater vehicles that move through the ocean waters on the own while under the control of a person on land or in a vessel.

The surfboard-looking Wave Glider, manufactured by California-based Liquid Robotics Inc., can be equipped with sensors, acoustic recording devices and cameras. It comes with a 1- or 2-meter-high mast on top equipped with a backup GPS, a safety light and equipment to collect weather data. Underneath, it has a 22-foot-long cable that's attached to a contraption the company calls a glider that uses the motion of the waves to propel it forward.

With solar panels for battery charging and onboard electronics, the Wave Glider can be programmed to travel for up to a year at sea, gathering information as it travels long distances without fuel, without the need for a manned ship and in near silence. It can be controlled through any computer or mobile device with a web browser.

The founder of Liquid Robotics developed the Wave Glider while trying to build a mechanism that could move around quietly in the ocean to record the songs of humpback whales off the Hawaii coast.

"You can think of it as an ocean drone, or marine robot, that you can configure for any type of data collection," said company spokeswoman Joanne Masters.

The company has produced more than 100 Wave Gliders that are in use around the world. Oil companies use them to detect oil seepage from the ocean bottom, she said. Others are used for port and harbor security or by the U.S. Navy.

In the Pacific Ocean, they've been used to record underwater noises and to deploy seismometers on the seafloor that can relay data for earthquake monitoring and tsunami warning systems.

In the Gulf of Maine, a Wave Glider was being launched today near Monhegan Island. In the coming weeks, it will crisscross the gulf collecting information on water temperature, salinity, wave height and the like, while also placing two high-tech sensors on the ocean bottom that will collect water temperature and pressure data. It will then make its way to the waters off the mid-Atlantic for additional tests, Pettigrew said.

The project is being coordinated by the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System and supported by the Northeastern Regional Association Coastal Ocean Observing System and the University of Maine's School of Marine Sciences, as well as Liquid Robotics and a Houston-based company called Sonardyne Inc., which is providing the sensors that will be placed on the ocean bottom.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has two Wave Gliders in use, one in the Gulf of Mexico to monitor seismic activity and another in Monterey Bay, Calif., that acts as a weather observation buoy, said U.S. IOOS Director Zdenka Willis.

If the Gulf of Maine tests are successful, the University of Maine would like to buy a Wave Glider using grant money, Pettigrew said. It could be used for numerous scientific applications or to monitor the network of observation buoys the university maintains in the gulf. Now, the university has to send a vessel out to a buoy if it's having problems.

So far, the devices have proven durable enough to survive hurricane winds and shark bites, Liquid Robotics says.

Pettigrew's biggest worry, though, is that it might get tangled up in the lobster gear off the Maine coast, where there are more than 2 million lobster traps.

"That's what we're worried about because we have more lobstermen than anywhere," he said. 

(Clarke Canfield, Associated Press)

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