One year ago this month, the RU 27, an eight-foot underwater glider, also called Scarlet Knight, completed a 221-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The torpedo-shaped, autonomous vehicle broke the record for the longest underwater trip by a glider in history. Last Thursday, the record-breaking glider was put on display for all to see in the Natural History Museum’s Sant Ocean Hall.
The story of Scarlet Knight begins with a challenge. In 2006, Dr. Richard Spinrad of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) met Rutgers University professors Scott Glen, Oscar Schofield and Josh Kohut at a workshop on international oceanic collaboration in Lithuania. Since 1998, the Rutgers team had been using gliders like Scarlet Knight to sample the salinity and temperature of the ocean in the coastal waters of Florida, Hawaii, New Jersey and the Mediterranean. The gliders were being employed for short distances of up to 30 miles. Spinrad, over a few bottles of wine, no less, posed a formidable challenge to the team—to send a glider all the way across the Atlantic.
The team accepted, and assembled a class of undergraduate students from a variety of disciplines to meet the challenge head-on. ”[The project] brought together engineers, computer scientists, oceanographers, as well as people who were just interested. They walked away with an appreciation of how important the ocean is, and I think that’s the really exciting part,” said Zdenka Willis of NOAA at Thursday’s unveiling.
The glider used the equivalent power of just three Christmas tree lights to undulate in a series of 10,000 continuous dives and ascents over a span of more than 4,500 miles. To dive, the glider would draw about one cup of water into its nose, causing it to sink forward. Once the glider slowed, it would spit out the water, propelling it forward in an upward motion.
Scarlet Knight’s journey started off in New Jersey on April 27, 2009, and ended in the town of Baiona, Spain, just north of the Portuguese border on the Atlantic coast. Its path loosely followed the route taken by Columbus’ ship, the Pinta, when it returned to Spain 517 years ago, immediately after the discovery of the New World. The Rutgers team collaborated with several Spanish schools and worked with the Spanish port authority. “This was a wonderful opportunity to participate in this adventure, this mission that epitomizes partnership,” says Enrique Alvarez Fanjul, of the Spanish port authority.
The underwater glider traveled 4,500 miles, collecting data along the way.
The glider didn’t go very fast. It traveled only about one mile per hour, but the Rutgers team didn’t have the need for speed. They were only interested in data-collection. “We’re pushing technology in the gliders to allow them to go deeper and further as well as pushing the edge on the technologies so we can look at everything from hurricane intensity forecasting to fisheries management to the general ecosystems, as well as that physical oceanography that’s really the bread and butter,” says Willis.
Most recently, autonomous gliders with similar technology were used to collect data at the Gulf oil spill cleanup.
Rutgers professor Scott Glenn, who spearheaded the project, sees the Scarlet Knight as an educational venture above all else. “I saw gliders as a new platform for exploring the ocean, something we’ve never been able to do before,” he says. “But the main purpose of this was educational. Yeah, we flew the glider across the ocean, but the main thing was we developed new education programs for our students.” The glider will be on display at the Natural History museum complete with photos, maps, and visuals in the Sant Ocean Hall through mid-2012.