A swarm of autonomous miniature underwater robot drifters for exploring submesoscale ocean dynamics

Screen grab from animation of the M-AUE system

TitleA swarm of autonomous miniature underwater robot drifters for exploring submesoscale ocean dynamics
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsJaffe JS, Franks PJS, Roberts PLD, Mirza D, Schurgers C, Kastner R, Boch A
JournalNature Communications
Date Published2017/01
Type of ArticleArticle

Measuring the ever-changing 3-dimensional (3D) motions of the ocean requires simultaneous sampling at multiple locations. In particular, sampling the complex, nonlinear dynamics associated with submesoscales (<1–10 km) requires new technologies and approaches. Here we introduce the Mini-Autonomous Underwater Explorer (M-AUE), deployed as a swarm of 16 independent vehicles whose 3D trajectories are measured near-continuously, underwater. As the vehicles drift with the ambient flow or execute preprogrammed vertical behaviours, the simultaneous measurements at multiple, known locations resolve the details of the flow within the swarm. We describe the design, construction, control and underwater navigation of the M-AUE. A field programme in the coastal ocean using a swarm of these robots programmed with a depth-holding behaviour provides a unique test of a physical–biological interaction leading to plankton patch formation in internal waves. The performance of the M-AUE vehicles illustrates their novel capability for measuring submesoscale dynamics.

Short TitleNat. Commun.

The experiment helped the researchers confirm that free-floating plankton can use the physical dynamics of the ocean—in this case internal waves—to increase their concentrations to congregate into swarms to fulfill their fundamental life needs.

“This swarm-sensing approach opens up a whole new realm of ocean exploration,” said Scripps research oceanographer Jules Jaffe. Augmenting the M-AUEs with cameras would allow the photographic mapping of coral habitats, or “plankton selfies.”

The research team has hopes to build hundreds more of the miniature robots to study the movement of larvae between marine protected areas, monitor harmful red tide blooms, and to help track oil spills. The onboard hydrophones that help track the M-AUEs underwater could also allow the swarm to act like a giant “ear” in the ocean, listening to and localizing ambient sounds in the ocean.

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