Hundreds of soccer-ball-sized robot drones could soon ply the friendly waves to help scientists track ocean currents and harmful algae blooms, or even swarm to disaster sites such as oil spills and airplane crashes. That’s no mere flight of fancy, now that the National Science Foundation has provided almost $1 million in funding to researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.
The underwater swarm would coordinate with larger mothership drones as they move around and gauge the physics of ocean currents. Such information might allow researchers to scout out critical nursery habitats in protected marine areas, and might likewise lead salvage teams to recover the black boxes from airplane crash sites.
“You put 100 of these AUEs [Autonomous Underwater Explorers] in the ocean and let ‘er rip,” said Peter Franks, an oceanographer at Scripps. “We’ll be able to look at how they spread apart and how they move to get a sense of the physics driving the flow.”
More data gathered over time could also feed into better ocean models that try to capture the ocean weather and climate.
Scripps researchers first plan to build five or six prototypes the size of soccer balls, along with 20 smaller versions. They would join a growing fleet of underwater robots ranging from U.S. Navy submarine drones to ring-wing robots designed for oil exploration.