Tiny Robot Swarms Will Study Tiniest Sea Life

Giant robots are best suited for Terminator-scale tasks. To measure the sea's tiniest inhabitants, oceanographers will need to build a new type of robot.

Ocean-going robots are quite common, used mainly to measure large-scale processes such as tidal patterns and the chemical make-up of the ocean. But to study critical nursery habitats for fish and track harmful algae blooms, Jules Jaffe and Peter Franks are designing something different.

The oceanographers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. are designing a few soccer-ball-sized explorers — and potentially hundreds of pint-sized partners.

These innovative AUEs will allow researchers to sample the environments of coastal regions as well, and to better understand how small organisms operate in the complex surroundings of the oceans," said Phillip Taylor of the National Science Foundation's division of ocean sciences.

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According to an explanation on the NSF's Web site, the larger explorers are deployed alongside of hundreds of the tiny explorers. Collectively, the entire swarm will track ocean currents that move organisms at the smallest scale, such as tiny abalone larvae.

"AUEs will give us information to figure out how small organisms survive, how they move in the ocean, and the physical dynamics they experience as they get around," said Franks. "AUEs should improve ocean models and allow us to do a better job of following 'the weather and climate of the ocean,' as well as help us understand things like carbon fluxes."