This autonomous glider could one day roam the oceans in packs

18 May 2018

An albatross glider designed by MIT engineers. Image: Gabriel Bousquet/Shutterstock

In an effort to better monitor the world’s oceans, a team from MIT has built a super-efficient glider, similar in design to an albatross.

The vastness of the world’s oceans makes it incredibly difficult for anyone to effectively monitor a large body of water. While satellites have certainly helped, we have yet to find an effective Earth-based solution.

But now, a team from MIT has unveiled its latest creation based on the gliding power of the common seabird known as the albatross.

The autonomous glider is capable of riding the waves like a sailboat and skimming along the water’s surface in a glide similar to an albatross.

‘The oceans remain vastly under-monitored’

When dropped into a region of high wind, it is designed to stay aloft; when the winds are calmer, it can become a sea-faring vessel.

Borrowing from both nautical and biological designs, the craft can cover a determined distance using one-third as much wind as an albatross, while travelling 10 times faster than a typical sailboat can, as it weighs just under 3kg.

“The oceans remain vastly under-monitored,” said Gabriel Bousquet who led the design of the robot as part of his graduate thesis.

“In particular, it’s very important to understand the Southern Ocean and how it is interacting with climate change. But it’s very hard to get there. We can now use the energy from the environment in an efficient way to do this long-distance travel, with a system that remains small-scale.”

Gliding albatross

The craft glides like an albatross over water. Image: Goldilock Project/Shutterstock

Roaming in packs

The design came about last year after Bousquet and a number of other researchers looked into the dynamics of albatross flight to better understand how the bird could travel huge distances without exerting enormous amounts of energy.

The team found that the physics of the bird’s flight is very similar to that of sailboat travel, as they both transfer momentum in order to keep moving.

In terms of speed, the craft should only need relatively calm winds of about five knots to zip across waters at a velocity of about 20 knots, equal to around 37kph.

Once the design was agreed upon, it was then a matter of adding the hardware, which includes GPS, inertial measurement sensors, autopilot instrumentation and ultrasound to track the height of the glider above the water.

The team’s goal is to one day have a design that will allow for packs of these speedy skimmers to be deployed to cover huge areas of an ocean.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic