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August 24, 2012

Stanford's new surfing robot opens ocean to exploration

A few days ago, Stanford marine biologists were excited to detect a white shark swimming along the California coast north of San Francisco. Although the biologists routinely monitor sharks, this particular moment marked the first step toward a "wired ocean" full of mobile robotic receivers and moored listening stations that can detect ocean wildlife as it swims by.

Although similar technologies have been used to monitor the ocean itself, specifically to investigate climate change, this is the first such experiment dedicated to wildlife.

In addition to providing researchers with near real-time data of sharks and other animals, the project supports a new iPhone and iPad app designed to give the public a more visceral connection to the ocean and the creatures within.

The Wave Glider robot – named Carey in honor of noted large pelagic fish biologist Frank Carey – is probing the Pacific Ocean off the California coast in an initiative led by Stanford marine sciences Professor Barbara Block and her research team to keep tabs on the comings and goings of top marine predators, and to provide better census data of all species in the area.


Professor Barbara Block and Keith Kreider of Liquid Robotics inspect the Wave Glider dubbed "Carey" just prior to deployment.



The unmanned wave glider Carey "surfs" up and down the coast, between the hot spots and to areas that are too remote for Block's group to visit on a regular basis. The device, built by the California-based company Liquid Robotics, consists of an underwater glider connected to a 7-foot-long "surfboard" that floats on the surface and carries scientific equipment. As the waves move the float up and down, it pulls the glider vertically. The glider's fins rotate to convert upward wave motion into forward thrust; as the float comes down off a wave, the glider sinks and the fins rotate in the opposite direction to generate forward thrust. This cyclical, nonstop action allows the glider to tow the float along a route set by the researchers.

Carey is decked out with sensory gear. The undersea glider carries the acoustic sensor, and solar panels on the floating board power a link to a satellite. It was launched near San Francisco last week, in anticipation of large numbers of sharks that will soon be arriving in the region. The first animal it heard was a rainbow trout, and it has since picked up a king salmon and several sharks.

This season's activities are really a test of a larger project. Block hopes to eventually deploy enough Wave Gliders and buoys to monitor the entire West Coast and create a "wired ocean" that will produce real-time data streams of the whereabouts of sharks and other marine animals, which will ultimately lead to long-term fisheries data that gauges the sea population in relationship to real-time oceanographic conditions.


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