These days, plastic trash and derelict fishing gear are nearly as common on beaches as sand. And around here, it’s not unusual to hear about sick or dead whales stranding on the beach. But finding an autonomous underwater vehicle – call it an underwater robot, if you like – is extremely rare, even with all the ocean engineers clustered along the coasts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Still, that’s what happened. The New Bedford Standard-Times reports that New Bedford Port Security found a small autonomous underwater vehicle on Monday.
The 4-foot-long, battery-powered, torpedo-shaped device has a winged turret mounted on top for stability, a transparent midsection and sensors inside a strip on its underside.
There are still more questions than answers surrounding the discovery ..
Chief among those are who the vehicle belongs to. So far they’ve ruled out the most obvious possibilities – the military or military contractors, UMass Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. (If, by some wild chance, you are the proud owner of this little beastie or know who is, officials would love to hear from you.)
Aside from being an intriguing mystery, I see this find as a reminder of the expanding role of robotics in ocean science. You might be surprised to learn just how many machines are bobbing and driving around in the ocean right now. Many, like the thousands of Argo floatsconstantly monitoring ocean temperature and salinity around the world, do their jobs – sometimes for years – without any human guidance. Others work more the Mars Rovers or a well-trained working dog, taking instructions from their human operators, then heading off to work independently for a while before returning to exchange the data they’ve gathered for a new set of instructions.
As you might imagine, these technological wonders don’t come cheap. And this robot stranding is also a reminder that ocean research is a risky business – sometimes those costly little robotic doggies don’t come when called. But underwater vehicles can often go where no human can (or should), bringing back glimpses of the ocean’s most extreme environments, as well as sought-after nuggets of information about how the ocean works – treasures well worth the price tag for most scientists.