How do we science? / Technology

Drones from the Deep: How Will Underwater Robots Help Us Learn More About the Ocean?

In the past year or so, the idea of drone robots filling our skies has captured our collective imagination. Drones have already been used for not-so-great things, such as the U.S’s drone strikes, but they have also been used to collect scientific data, in filmmaking, as a part of search and rescue operations, to prevent poaching, and, last but not least, as the subject of innumerable hilarious youtube videos.

I love a good drone fail video as much as the next person (let’s be honest, probably more) and am excited by the prospect of being able to stay glued to my couch as a drone delivers my groceries to me, but even I sometimes feel uneasy about the idea that robots like these could become (and, if you think about it, have already become) essential parts of our lives. Eventually, some people fear, robots will be so essential that we humans will become obsolete.

Did I decide to become a marine scientist so that my career would be safe from robotic takeover? No, of course not–that would be crazy. But is it a perk of the job? You betcha. We scientists like to think that our jobs, with their need for critical thinking and creativity, couldn’t be handled by a robot. And it’s true that data analyzation and synthesis are tasks no AI is up to as of yet.

But, as it turns out, the job of obtaining raw data is one that is increasingly done by robots: a fleet of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs for short) are coming to an ocean near you, and their powers of data collection will present scientists with new opportunities and challenges.


In the present-day model of marine data collection, a bunch of scientists get together, purchase space, time, and a crew on an oceanographic research vessel. We call these excursions research “cruises,” but I can tell you from personal experience that the whole venture is (sadly, for lazy scientists like me) extremely light on the “cruise” aspect. This need to “buckle down” and “do work” (two phrases which make me shudder) is driven by the fact that research cruises are frighteningly expensive. Running one of the larger ships can cost tens of thousands of dollars a day. Because cruises are so expensive, they’re relatively rare–most lab groups go out on open ocean cruises only once or twice a year. This, combined with the sheer size of the ocean, means that we know very little about what goes on underneath its surface except in a few (mostly coastal) areas.

cruise dreams

And here is where the robots make their grand entrance. AUVs and other underwater gliders are increasingly being used by marine scientists to collect information where and when humans are unable to do so. Underwater gliders, in particular, are able to remain at sea for months at a time thanks to a low-energy, buoyancy-based movement mechanism. These sleek, torpedo-like objects can be directed to “swarm” an interesting looking area of the ocean, collecting data on the physics, chemistry, and biology of the water in the process. After data collection, gliders are programmed to head for the surface where they can transmit their data to a control room through something akin to a very long distance phone call.

This technology, though impressive, is still in its infancy. It’s hard enough to program a robot to work how you want it to, but marine roboticists also have to deal with their gliders being attacked by sharks, weighted down by remora eels, and taken land-side by well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) humans. The kind of data that can be collected by gliders is limited by the space available inside of them for scientific instruments, and their usefulness is limited by their battery life. But there’s no denying that these underwater drones are an integral part of the future of oceanography.

The dangers of #dronelife.

The dangers of #dronelife.

Where does that leave us–both scientists and the nonscientists? Marine robots should increase our knowledge about what’s going on in the ocean, which can only help the world at large as we try to tackle issues such as climate change, pollution, overfishing, and waste disposal. But I also imagine that this robotic future will result in marine scientists who spend all their time in a control room, receiving data from AUV fleets without ever going out on the ocean themselves.

I’m happy about the knowledge gliders will give us, but sad that we’ll be partially giving up the intimate connection with the ocean that I think helps to motivate and inspire many oceanographers. Of course, people have said similar things about other technologies, like cars and computers, and we’ve all adjusted just fine (or so it seems). As we’ve seen with airborne drones, resistance is futile.

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