Underwater Robot Scientist Can Plan Experiments, Analyze Samples
It’s a robot that could change the way scientists gather data from underwater sources. Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in California have developed a new autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), and like other AUVs this sophisticated robot can slip under the waves, sweep the ocean floor, collect data, and perform programmed tasks. But “the Gulper” goes one step further–it doesn’t just follow its program, it can also make decisions on its own, and can plan its own route, avoiding hazardous currents and obstacles [BBC].
Explaining how the robot functions, Kim Fulton-Bennett from MBARI said: “We tell it, ‘here’s the range of tasks that we want you to perform’, and it goes off and assesses what is happening in the ocean, making decisions about how much of the range it will cover to get back the data we want” [BBC]. The ocean-going bot has also been described as “a microbiology laboratory in a can,” because it can analyze some samples in situ. The ‘ecogenomic sensor’, which is packed into a roughly 1-metre-long canister, can test for proteins released by microorganisms and even run DNA tests match DNA to determine which species are present [Nature News]. Findings can instantly be relayed to the shore, saving scientists the cumbersome task of transferring samples from site to lab.
Describing the ocean robot at the Ocean Sciences meeting in Portland, the research team explained that the AUV’s software is similar to that used on NASA’s Mars rovers. The software, called “T rex,” allows the machine to detect and avoid obstacles in its path. However, the scientists noted that unlike the Mars Rovers, the AUV has to function at great depths and in total darkness, so it relies less on visual cues. The researchers also modified the software for maximum flexibility so that the robot could decide how to get the best samples. So if a scientist wanted to study the microorganisms living on each side of a temperature gradient, the AUV would find the boundary, follow it, and pick the best spot to take samples [Nature News].
For now, the scientists hope to use the AUV to detect harmful algal blooms which can shut down beaches and cause a downward spike in seaside businesses. They expect to soon find many more applications for the AUV in deep-ocean research.