In the cold waters off Antarctica, a solitary, yellow glider named the "Blue Hen" keeps track of the penguins that graduate student Megan Cimino monitors from a lab in Lewes. Fellow student Matthew Breece follows endangered Atlantic sturgeon as they move along the Delaware and New Jersey coast each spring with a similar, autonomous, underwater robot that picks up acoustic signals from specialized tags implanted in the fish. And associate professors Doug Miller and Art Trembanis are using underwater robots to track sea scallops off the coast.
These robots – some autonomous and some operated by remote control – are a growing part of the University of Delaware's College of Earth, Ocean and Environment research program. And late last week, the university dedicated a new lab, the Robotics Discovery Laboratories, at the Lewes campus.
The lab includes a half-dozen, torpedo-like robots that can explore the bottom and map its contours, take continuous readings of environmental conditions – both at sea and in nearshore waters – and even rescue other robots when they get lost. Most get their marching orders from strings of computer code. Some can respond if researchers ask a question.
To help support the effort, the university also commissioned a new 46-foot research vessel: The R/V Joanne Daiber.
The boat will be used on short research cruises and in shallower estuary and nearshore water as an at-sea classroom for both undergraduate and graduate students, said Nancy Targett, dean of the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment. "We want to inspire and transform our students," Targett said. "We want to conduct research that helps us enhance our understanding of the environment but also that develops solutions to some of the challenges we face."
The new research vessel is named in honor of the late Joanne Daiber, the first woman marine biologist at the University of Delaware.
The research boat, dedicated Friday, is already in use. It's been on eight research cruises since June and just last week Capt. Evan Falgowski took researchers into 6 feet of water so they could take core samples of bottom sediments. It also has been used as a floating classroom for both undergraduate and graduate students. Falgowski said it is equipped with both a wet and a dry lab and has enough generator power to run the laptop computers used in research.
It's much smaller than the university's other vessel, the RV Sharp, but it's less costly to operate and its size allows research at shallower depths. "It's set up for science just the same way," Falgowski said. The university's fleet of underwater robots also can be deployed from the new research vessel, he said.
The new robotics lab was built on the site of a former greenhouse at the Lewes campus. Hunter Brown, the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Systems operation manager, said that besides being a holding area for the robots, the facility also includes a circular ballast tank. It allows researchers to prepare robots for the specific conditions where they will be used prior to heading into the field. "We can simulate any condition" from salinity to water temperature, Brown said. The lab also unites many of the faculty and students who use robots to explore the undersea environment. "It took only a few meetings with Art Trembanis and Matt Oliver to realize consolidation made sense," said Mark Moline, director of the School of Marine Science and Policy.
Moline said in the future there will likely be more integration with other robotic efforts, of which there are several, at the University of Delaware.
Cimino already understands the value of partnerships. This year, as she continues her work on penguin movements, she'll be working with another team that is tracking the food that penguins eat. "We're curious where the krill are," she said.