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Sea Faring Robots to Monitor Oil Spills

Engineers at the UC San Diego are developing control systems for herds of tiny robotic ocean explorers which might one day assist in predicting where ocean currents will carry oil spills. Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC San Diego are developing the underwater robotic ocean drifters. The autonomous robots are intended to help find and describe underwater ocean currents on the order of a few kilometres. Such currents are not well understood, yet they are important to the understanding of marine protected areas, algal blooms, oil spills, and the path sewage takes after it is pumped into the ocean.

“Maybe there has been an oil spill in the ocean and we want to establish very quickly how and where the spill might move. We are developing the algorithms that will keep a swarm of autonomous underwater explorers (AUEs) coordinated so they can follow the flow of the ocean currents and give us data on the spill as it is moving around,” said professor Jorge Cortes, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

Ocean Going Robot Swarm
“The information that each robot in the underwater flock has is pretty limited…and this information is very local. From this, we want to induce some sort of global behavior so the whole group moves in one direction—to follows the spill, for example. This is part of the algorithm design. Out of very local information, we need to induce global behaviour of the flock of underwater robots,” said Cortes.

As well as predicting where oil will travel to, scientists could use information on ocean current flows to improve their understanding of how ocean currents operate on a larger scale, their impact on ocean life, and determine where marine protected areas should be established.

“We have developed these kinds of algorithms in the lab, and now we face the task of actually implementing them in the ocean,” said Cortes. The project differs from related work on networks of underwater robots in that the robot swarms the UCSD researchers are developing are significantly smaller and less expensive. At the same time, these robot swarms will be far more capable of making use of the information they collect on the fly in order to improve the accuracy of their task at hand.

One of the objectives of the project, according to Cortes, is to create control systems that would enable local agencies to deploy swarms of robots in the ocean quickly to monitor spills and get a clear idea of where ocean currents will carry sewage and other pollutants. Also, the swarms of robots will be useful for a wide range of basic ocean research. According to Jules Jaffe and Peter Franks, co-principal investigators on the project, the robot swarms could aid in science’s development of marine protected areas by following currents for determining critical nursery habitats and for tracking harmful blooms of algae.

Image courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego