Georgia robot in fleet of ocean research machines

October 6, 2013 - via Skidaway Institute

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) -- A small fleet of underwater robots, including one from Skidaway Institute, is swimming off the East Coast this fall, collecting data that could shed light on scientific puzzles ranging from hurricane intensity forecasts to fish migration patterns.

Researchers have dubbed it GliderPalooza.

"You can tell the people involved are a certain age range," said Skidaway researcher Catherine Edwards, who launched her bright yellow glider Modena on Tuesday about 40 miles offshore.

Hers is the southernmost glider in the collaboration that spans from Nova Scotia to Georgia. Modena, which Edwards calls a "glider with a Southern accent," is newly outfitted with a device on loan from the Ocean Tracking Network that picks up signals from any tagged fish and marine mammals that come within about a mile of it.

That's a boon to researchers at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary who implanted acoustic tags in 63 snapper and grouper fish as part of a long-term study of the animals' movements. Until now, the researchers had to rely on stationary receivers they deployed at Gray's Reef to get an idea of how the fish use the sanctuary.

"Having a glider exploring areas offshore of Gray's Reef will allow us to possibly, with some luck, detect one of the tagged fish, giving us a clue about where they may be when they leave the sanctuary," said researcher Sarah Fangman.

Modena will be traveling outside the sanctuary in a triangular route, guided by computerized assistance from the Skidaway/Georgia Tech glider team that optimizes her movements by predicting ocean currents and making adjustments accordingly.

In all, 12 to 16 autonomous underwater robotic vehicles are being deployed. The gliders will be available through the peak fall Atlantic storm season to collect data on ocean conditions, which will help improve scientists' understanding of hurricanes and pave the way for future improvements in hurricane intensity forecasts.

"When storms are moving along our coasts, lives depend on accurate forecasts," said Zdenka Willis, U.S. IOOS program director. "The unmanned gliders will allow us to collect data even in the middle of the storm and eventually provide this information to NOAA's National Weather Service to help improve forecast precision so decision makers can keep people safe."

Modena and the other gliders will transmit real-time information about water temperature, salinity and density, dissolved oxygen, phytoplankton, colored dissolved organic matter and particulate matter in the water.

The simultaneous data collection up and down the coast is a first, Edwards said.

"By being all together it's more than the sum of its parts," she said.

The grassroots effort by the researchers is also a public relations coup for the robots, which can cheaply collect data that previously needed expensive research ships to collect. Gliders cost hundreds of dollars a day to support while the R.V. Savannah from which Modena was deployed, costs $11,000 a day to run.

"We hope to get a lot of visibility about what gliders can provide," she said.

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