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New Underwater Robot Pursues Biological Specimens Over Long Distances


A new underwater robot designed to chase marine organisms and record their life stories combines the best attributes of long-distance gliders and short-trip propeller vehicles. Its creator says its range and science capabilities could completely change oceanography.

Tethys, designed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, represents a new class of autonomous underwater vehicles. Most AUVs sacrifice range for robust science instruments, or vice versa, leaving scientists with an incomplete picture of life on the seas. Tethys, on the other hand, can travel at high speeds for hundreds of miles, float with the currents for weeks at a time and carry a wide range of instruments.

For most of October, it crisscrossed Monterey Bay as part of an experiment to track microscopic algae patches. It did such a good job that its creators hope to send it to Hawaii eventually, using high-powered disposable batteries.

The robot’s creator, Jim Bellingham, spent four years trying to build an AUV that could bring agility and endurance to the study of oceanography. In the past, studying phenomena like algal blooms depended on luck and timing — oceanographers would stick an instrument on a mooring and hope algae would drift past it, or they would schedule a cruise and hope the bloom would happen while they were at sea, he explains in a MBARI news story.

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