Unmanned Ocean Vehicles Making Waves


>By Tim Moran November 17, 2011: A quartet of unmanned ocean vehicles, called Wave Gliders, were launched from San Francisco's St. Francis Yacht Club by Liquid Robotics, an ocean-data services provider and the developer of these marine robots. The mission was the PacX Challenge, a record-setting journey across the Pacific Ocean--the longest distance ever attempted by such devices. March 13, 2012: Liquid Robotics claims that the PacX Challenge Wave Gliders have broken the Guinness World Record for distance covered by an unmanned wave-powered vehicle. (A wave-powered device uses only the ocean's endless supply of wave energy for propulsion--no manpower, no emissions, no refueling, says the company.) The four robots arrived in Hawaii on the first leg of their 9,000-nautical-mile journey across the Pacific, having traveled more than 3,200 nautical miles, which is said to break the previous world distance record of 2,500 nautical miles.

So far, it's been some jaunt. According to the developer, the Wave Gliders survived 26-foot waves in a gale-force storm and defied turbulent mid-ocean currents, all while staying on course to their first destination--the Island of Hawaii, also called the Big Island. But the purpose of the robots' journey isn't just the fame of being Guinness record-holders: The "unprecedented Pacific crossing," said Liquid Robotics, is designed to "foster new scientific discoveries in ocean science by making available vast amounts of ocean data collected and transmitted globally during the Wave Gliders' yearlong journey."

To that end, the four Wave Gliders are expected to collect approximately 2.25 million discrete data points. It will take more than 300 days for the robots to complete their voyage, during which they will transmit ocean data pertaining to salinity, water temperature, waves, weather, fluorescence and dissolved oxygen. To accomplish all that, the maritime robots are outfitted with a variety of sensors that are set to sample at 10-minute intervals.

Despite the technical nature of the challenge undertaken by Liquid Robotics, the company has something of a soulful side, too. Consider the names of the Wave Gliders: One is called Papa Maru, or "the Way Finder." It was named after the Micronesian navigator, Pius "Mau" Piailug, who is famous for his traditional, non-instrument finding methods for deep-sea voyaging.

"True to his spirit," says the company, "his namesake Wave Glider has navigated to port without instruments, due to a satellite communication disruption." Go Papa Mau! The others are named Piccard Maru (for Jacques Piccard), Fontaine Maru (for Matthew Fontaine Maury) and Benjamin (for Ben Franklin).

After a short check-up, the PacX Wave Gliders will head out on their final journeys to Australia and Japan, with one team crossing the Mariana Trench and battling "the Kuroshio Current" on the way to Japan, while the other team will cross the equator on the way to Australia. The developers expect them to arrive at their respective destinations late this year or early in 2013.