A team of ocean explorers of the future sat on the back of a boat in the St. Francis Yacht Harbor, waiting to set-out on the expedition of a lifetime. Only, they weren’t alive.
The team of four seafaring robots, called Wave Gliders, looked something like funky surfboards with antennae and fancy sensors sticking out from everywhere.
They were created by the Sunnyvale-based company, Liquid Robotics, which is hoping to eventually unleash a whole fleet of unmanned robots on the world’s oceans.
“Wave Gliders could potentially go in a far larger area than we could walk… ever,” said Liquid Robotics founder Roger Hine.
On Thursday, the gliders set-out from San Francisco on a journey that will take them to Monterey and Hawaii. After that, one pair will head for Japan while the other sets-out for Australia.
“The combined distance these four vehicles will travel I think is 33 thousand miles,” said Hine, admiring the crafts. “It’s an amazing distance and it’s an unprecedented journey for an unmanned vehicle.”
Though robotic water gliders have been around for several years, the trip is unprecedented in more ways than just distance. The vessels use wave power to propel themselves. Their elaborate systems are powered by a solar panel affixed to the top. The direction is controlled remotely from the company’s headquarters in Sunnyvale.
The mission across the seas isn’t just an endurance test, it’s also a scientific journey.
“They’re also measuring some properties about the water itself,” said Hine, “its salinity, its temperature, the amount of oxygen in the water.”
The gliders are in a sense a traveling laboratory. Their sensors and communication gear can measure wind, weather, wave height and water quality.
“It’s a big deal doing things like tracking storms across the Pacific before they come in towards the West Coast in the wintertime,” said former NASA astronaut, and current Liquid Robotics employee Ed Lu.
As a veteran of the Space Station and several shuttle missions, Lu had a vast perspective on the importance of probing the world’s oceans.
“We understand what’s going on in space more than we do on the oceans,” he said.
The small vessels also translate into smaller costs for ocean researchers. There’s no ship to rent and no crew to hire. The company already has about ten of the water craft working for various research groups.
One of those groups, has goals has bold as Liquid Robotics’. Virgin Oceanic plans to send a one-man submarine 36,000 feet below the ocean surface at the Mariana Trench next year. Chris Welsh, who will pilot the sub, said robotic gliders can expand ocean science beyond the limits of what man can currently accomplish.
“They’re creating a new way to access information out of the ocean that doesn’t exist today,” said Welsh.
Although humans won’t be on the vessels themselves, they will be able to follow the action from the warm, dry, luxury of their personal computer. Google Earth plans to install an icon on its maps that will track the gliders’ journey.
“You’ll be able to see data, wave height, if they’re going through a storm,” said Jenifer Austin Foulkes of Google Earth.
Scientists say the information gleaned from the crafts will help them understand climate change, predict hurricanes and weather. They say another application the bots could be used is finding oil spills.
Not bad for an explorer who doesn’t complain about working weekends, and will never ask for a raise.