Autonomous underwater research robot comes to Horn Point Laboratory

July 10, 2012 - via UMCES

A new high-tech marine exploration tool will soon help oceanographers advance the study of coastal ocean environments.

Shaped like a torpedo, it is a 16-foot-long underwater robot with a propeller that follows preset commands to seek out and collect information underwater. Not only will it help researchers at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science diagnose the health of the Chesapeake Bay, but the marine robot will be available as a shared resource for scientists to use in coastal environments around the world. It also has great educational potential and can serve as a window to the sea for school children, teachers and the general public.

It will be delivered to the Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, Maryland, in March 2013.

"The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science is known for its experts in marine and estuarine environments," said President Don Boesch. "This research vehicle puts the Horn Point Laboratory at the forefront of using state-of-the-art technology to advance our study of the coastal environment, such as what's happening on the coastal shelf, fisheries, harmful algal blooms and the extent of hypoxia in the Bay. It will have an immediate impact on interdisciplinary oceanographic and marine research."

Most of the knowledge of the Chesapeake Bay is from bi-weekly cruises along its main axis–data is collected by either instruments into the water or attaching monitors to fixed buoys or platforms. Both approaches have drawbacks that the AURV helps address.

The automous underwater research vehicle, a Kongsberg-Hydroid REMUS 600, is capable of assembling a more comprehensive view of what's going on in the marine environment because it can operate closer to the bottom, in adverse weather conditions, and with greater flexibility than is presently possible with surface-based observations. This will allow scientists to make pioneering advances in understanding how circulation, chemical constituents such as dissolved oxygen and nitrate in the water, and marine animals like phytoplankton and zooplankton all interact as part of the marine ecosystem.

The underwater robot is outfitted with several state-of-the art technologies to enable a wide variety of research tasks. It navigates underwater by means an advanced inertial navigation system coupled to an acoustic device that can be programmed with an initial set of waypoints and travel speeds. Once it finds its target, it can autonomously adapt its measurement protocol via a second computer that constantly monitors the data stream, including salinity, temperature, oxygen, nitrate, and flourescence (an indicator of the presence of phytoplankton). Missions can be redirected via satellite communication when the vehicle is at the surface, or with an acoustically relayed message via surface buoy."This piece of equipment is a game changer for coastal oceanographic research," said Nicholas Nidzieko, Assistant Professor at Horn Point Laboratory. "This technology is going to be an essential part of the way we approach questions about the marine environment in the future."

Forward and aft thrusters allow the vehicle to hover, pivot, and vertically profile. Since the robot is modular, it can be fitted with a variety of sensors as required for the scientific mission and to accommodate future development.

"It's amazing--you can put this AUV in all these unique places and generate an incredibly rich data set that will open up news ways of approaching oceanographic research," said Nidzieko.

The Horn Point Laboratory plans to make the system available for charter to other researchers in the marine sciences industry, acting as a shared resource for marine oceanographic exploration.

Planned projects include studies of frontal dynamics at the continental shelf-slope break, sediment trapping mechanics in the Hudson River, autonomous hypoxia mapping in the Chesapeake Bay, and acoustic imaging studies of zooplankton.

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