Ocean robot opens window to whole new world of marine life

7 Jan 2019

Spiny lobster eggs. Image: © matteo/Stock.adobe.com

Researchers have developed a new autonomous robot capable of exploring the tiniest of creatures roaming the world’s oceans.

When it comes to marine life, more often than not what we can’t see with our own eyes is crucial to what’s going on in the murkiest depths of the world’s oceans. That is why oceanographers and engineers at the University of California San Diego have created an autonomous robot that can, for the first time, see this microscopic life up close in its own habitat.

The robot, dubbed Zooglider, was developed from a common oceanography instrument used to study the microscopic animals known as zooplankton, and a glider known as Spray. The torpedo-shaped glider was outfitted with a camera and a device the researchers call Zonar, which gathers acoustic data about zooplankton.

Zooglider can snap images of the creatures every 5cm to depths of 400 metres or more as it channels seawater into an onboard sampling tunnel. The device is hugely important in the study of the creatures as it allows researchers to study them in their own habitat, providing information about that life in spatial context.

The orange Zooglider craft diving beneath the ocean surface.

The Zooglider in action. Image: University of California San Diego

‘We’re excited by the new opportunities Zooglider offers’

“Nearly all major processes in the ocean – carbon cycling, fisheries production, harmful algal blooms, ocean acidification, deoxygenation – are linked directly to the free-drifting animals of the open sea, the zooplankton,” said biological oceanographer Mark Ohman.

“This is our first window on their world through a completely autonomous vehicle. We’re excited by the new opportunities Zooglider offers to visualise and understand these organisms, unperturbed in their natural environment.”

The glider design has been developed by Russ Davis of Scripps over more than 20 years. Two metres in length, it can be programmed to perform functions using a mobile phone. The Zooglider will be able to roam the oceans for more than 50 days and, because of its design, it causes the least amount of disruption to the microscopic communities it observes.

A description of the instrument appears in the journal Limnology and Oceanography Methods.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic