Several decades ago, Earth observation satellites transformed how we keep track of changes on our planet. Now we are rapidly crossing a new technological threshold that will allow us to pick up even the most subtle variations in the environment.
Imagine swarms of autonomous robots roaming the globe by land, sea and air, together producing the ultimate picture of what is going on on our planet. This great vision is already becoming a reality – or at least with respect to the sea.
Recently UK scientists have unleashed an entire fleet of autonomous marine robots to travel about 500 km across an area of southwestern UK. The fleet comprises 4 types of vehicles, including both underwater and surface ones. The great thing is that all the vehicles rely on renewable sources of energy, thanks to which they can spend months offshore without any human intervention.
Instruments on board the vehicles record key parameters of the ocean, ranging from the temperature of the water to the density of plankton populations. Equipped with GoPro cameras, the robots are also expected to take some spectacular shots of marine life.
The Exploring Ocean Fronts project is led by the National Oceanography Centre and is already referred to as the most ambitious of its kind in Europe. The project is now in phase two, in which several vehicles are attempting to track acoustically tagged fish. The goal is to get an insight into the daily habits of marine life, which, believe it or not, we know very little about. The obtained information will inform future decisions regarding ocean management, including those directed at achieving sustainable fisheries.
Potential benefits of such massive robot observation missions, of course, go way beyond that. For instance, a better understanding of how the ocean varies over time and space can immensely benefit climate and weather research.