Underwater Drones Gather Data at Sea

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Underwater drones are changing the way scientists study the sea.

These drones are the centerpiece of“Gliderpalooza,” a collaborative ocean-survey experiment coordinated by 16 American and Canadian government agencies and research teams. By pooling their resources, including satellites, radar stations, research buoys and the gliders, the teams hope to capture the most complete picture yet of the Atlantic’s many mysterious underwater movements — from deepwater currents to migrating fish.

The gliders, as he calls them, are winged and propellerless, like miniature Tomahawk missiles. Two are on loan from the Navy, and one, Rutgers’s own, is pockmarked from a past shark attack. As they slink into the Atlantic to begin a monthlong mission, they join a fleet of 12 others across the Eastern Seaboard, from Nova Scotia to Georgia.

The battery-powered gliders continually dive in long swooping curves, taking snapshots of the ocean’s temperature, currents and other features at a range of depths. They reach a maximum depth of roughly 650 feet, though they can be configured to go deeper; that is relatively shallow for most of the ocean, but more than deep enough for continental shelves, which are on average 460 feet below sea level and can extend from a few thousand feet to hundreds of miles offshore.

Each glider costs $125,000 to $150,000, depending on instrumentation, a bargain compared with traditional methods. “A research vessel can cost anywhere from $35,000 to almost $100,000 per day,” said Oscar M. Schofield, an ocean scientist at Rutgers who is leading the experiment. “If you were to try to do this same experiment with ships, it would cost on the order of millions to tens of millions of dollars.”

Ocean drones have been used around the world for a decade, often to survey conditions too dangerous for humans.“But this represents an important step in the maturation of the technology,” said Timothy J. Cowles, a researcher with the Ocean Observatories Initiative, who is not involved with Gliderpalooza.


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