Dispatches from Oceans ’16: Exploring Other Oceans

How the field of AUV research is growing rapidly and breaking through barriers posed by ocean research.

During the Sept. 20, 2016 plenary session at Oceans ’16, Jim Bellingham discusses the work of one scientist to capture a view of the ocean rarely seen – a backwards glance from a camera affixed to the top of an autonomous underwater vehicle. Image Credit: Kelley Christensen

During the Sept. 20, 2016, plenary session at Oceans ’16, Jim Bellingham discusses the work of one scientist to capture a view of the ocean rarely seen – a backwards glance from a camera affixed to the top of an autonomous underwater vehicle. Image Credit: Kelley Christensen

Monterey, California – How autonomous underwater vehicles are fundamentally changing the way humans are exploring the ocean was the focus of the first plenary session at Oceans ’16.

“For most of us our view of the ocean has been in effect shaped from the view of a deck of a ship,” said Jim Bellingham, founding director of the Center for Marine Robotics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

“We have lowered things into the seas, gone into the deep in Alvin. We have looked at the top of the ocean, but have been only occasional visitors to the ocean environment. Today there are literally hundreds of ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) in use in ocean engineering alone. They’re absolutely essential to the enterprise of exploring the ocean.”

Bellingham and Tom Curtin, senior principal research scientist at University of Washington, discussed in their plenary talks how the field of AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle) research is growing rapidly and breaking through barriers posed by ocean research. Robotic systems allow researchers to explore places we ourselves cannot go – under ice sheets, to the depths of the seas, even to the liquid moons of our outer solar system.

“There’s more liquid water in the outer solar system than in the inner solar system,” Bellingham said. “There is more water on Europa than on Earth.”

On this planet, AUVs are poised to do more than take environmental samples, though that line of research has untold impacts for better understanding Earth’s complex systems.

For example, AUVs may be used to increase oceanic agriculture or further mining operations.

Saildrones are autonomous sailing drones that can collect data in extreme ocean environments and provide real-time data to researchers around the globe; to date, Saildrone missions have covered more than 60,000 nautical miles of open ocean. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

Saildrones are autonomous sailing drones that can collect data in extreme ocean environments and provide real-time data to researchers around the globe; to date, Saildrone missions have covered more than 60,000 nautical miles of open ocean. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

At the leading edge of AUV testing and development are thousands of students from around the globe who compete in annual competitions designed to create AUVs that are as reliable as they are complex.

Curtin said in developing new generations of autonomous vehicles their creators must consider navigation, environmental adaptation, the ability to identify stationary and moving objects in a variety of situations, object manipulation, payload delivery and retrieval, and the ability to weigh options to determine a course of action.

Creating a system of AUVs working together in the oceans will teach researchers about a part of the Earth for which little is known.

“We’ve gone from a period where getting one robot to work was a big deal to systems of robots working cooperatively in the ocean environment,” Bellingham said.

“All of these vehicles aren’t just operating on their own, taking data to analyze later. These robots are (sending) their data back to shore, monitoring the ocean, and making predictions about the ocean environment. It’s not one system in the ocean, it’s a network of systems in the ocean.”

Kelley Christensen is Earthzine’s science editor.

Stay tuned for updates from Oceans ’16.

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