Skip to main content

Swarm of grapefruit-sized robots helps scientists unlock secrets of the sea

Swarm of Underwater Robots Mimics Ocean Life
Despite covering 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, our oceans still remain a great unknown for science. Only five percent of the sea floor has been topographically mapped, meaning the moon and some celestial neighbors like Mercury and Venus are better known than our own ocean. But understanding the sea around us is vital for securing our future on this planet, and a handful of scientists have made it their mission to illuminate the deep.

Among the most prominent of these scientists are Jules Jaffe and Peter Franks, researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. In a recent paper, Jaffe and Franks describe a study they conducted with a swarm of grapefruit-sized robots called Miniature Autonomous Underwater Explorers (M-AUEs), which ride currents and monitor their environment in 3D. Data collected by the swarm has already offered insight into the lives of plankton, the oceans most abundant life form.

To measure oceanic properties, the specially designed M-AUEs are fitted with temperature sensors and buoyancy controls that enable them to adjust their relative depth and monitor how ocean currents influence marine life. Though the paper published January 24 in the journal Nature Communications depicts a swarm of 16 M-AUEs, the researchers suggest that hundreds or thousands of these machines could be deployed in a massive swarm to answer more complex questions.

“The numerous drifters in the swarm each behave independently, reacting to changes in their environment through pre-programmed movements of their piston, which controls their buoyancy,” Franks told Digital Trends. “The distributed elements of the swarm acted like a large-scale sensing system, allowing us to record changes in the swarm size in response to the underlying ocean currents.”

The researchers wanted to test a theory of plankton movement that Franks proposed twenty year ago. But such a test required them to track the movement of individual organisms in the ocean, which is impossible with current technologies. Jaffe designed the M-AUEs to mimic how plankton move, using acoustic signals to track the devices.

The swarm’s data revealed the accuracy of Franks’ original prediction. The research confirmed that free-floating plankton can exploit the ocean’s physical dynamics to gather in patches that Franks likens to “planktonic singles bars” since the organisms use them for both reproduction and feeding.

The researchers plan to scale down the size of their units and beef up their swarm, building hundreds more units to help monitor events like red-tide blooms and oil spills with better accuracy.

Editors' Recommendations

Dyllan Furness
Dyllan Furness is a freelance writer from Florida. He covers strange science and emerging tech for Digital Trends, focusing…
Want to experiment controlling a swarm of robots? Georgia Tech is here to help

Access to a fully kitted-out swarm robotics lab is something that only a small number of researchers around the world can dream of having. The Georgia Institute of Technology is setting out to right that wrong with next week’s opening of a brand new “Robotarium” lab -- a 725-square-foot facility that provides all the tools researchers need to carry out experiments with a swarm of real robots. These could include questions ranging from how to coordinate platoons of self-driving trucks on the interstate to how teams of rescue robots should best spread out to cover an area after a natural disaster.

All researchers need to do is to upload their code to the Robotarium website and watch it play out on a massive hockey rink-style arena, as filmed by motion capture cameras in the ceiling. Once an experiment has been carried out, researchers receive the video evidence and data they require, while the robot swarm autonomously returns to its charging points to await the next mission.

Read more
This sea snake bot looks like it escaped from a sci-fi nightmare, but it’s actually here to help
undersea robot fjord dsc00186

The tagline to 1978’s Jaws 2 is, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water!”

It’s a strapline that could equally be adopted by the makers of Eelume, a snake-like robot designed to live underwater and repair undersea infrastructure, such as pipelines and oil rigs. And, no doubt, to terrify the occasional diver, too!

Read more
Watching a swarm of mini robots throw shapes is weirdly hypnotic
tiny robot flock screen shot 2017 01 09 at 21 11 47

Like a flock of sparrows or a giant school of fish, researchers in Harvard University’s Self-Organizing Systems Research Group have developed a “large-scale robot collective” capable of assembling to form a variety of different shapes.

In the work -- which was recently presented at the International Symposium on Distributed Autonomous Robotic Systems (DARS) -- the 725 Kilobot robots start out in a tight grid-like group, before those not required to form a certain pattern disperse to leave the desired shape. Doing this requires a coordinated system in which the robots are able to determine a plan of action, based on a single overhead light, which they follow.

Read more