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FEATURE ARTICLE

The Robot Ocean Network

Automated underwater vehicles go where people cannot, filling in crucial details about weather, ecosystems, and Earth’s changing climate.

Oscar Schofield, Scott Glenn, Mark Moline

Diving In

The pace of innovation for ocean technology is accelerating, guaranteeing that the next-generation robotic systems and sensors will make current crusty oceanographers green with envy. Some of that future direction is evident in recent advances such as AUVs with onboard data analysis, so they can make smart decisions at sea by analyzing their own data. Improved sampling will also be achieved by developing methods to coordinate the efforts of multiple AUVs, either by communicating directly among themselves or by downloading commands sent from shore.

These technical advances will dramatically improve our ability to explore the ocean. But the largest effect of these systems is likely to be a cultural shift stemming from real-time, open-access data. Ocean science has historically been limited to a small number of individuals who have access to the ships that can carry them out to sea, but the realization of Hank Stommel’s dream now allows anyone with interest to become involved. This outcome will democratize the ocean sciences and ultimately increase overall ocean literacy, relevant for 71 percent of this planet.

This cultural shift in oceanography comes at a critical time, given that observations suggest that climate change is altering ocean ecosystems. Examining past large-scale changes in the ocean has revealed global scale alterations in the biota of Earth, suggesting life is more intimately linked to the state of the world’s ocean than we knew. The greater our awareness of these intricate connections, the better chance we have of coping with a changing ocean planet.

Bibliography

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  • Johnson, K. S., et al. 2009. Observing biogeochemical cycles at global scales with profiling floats and gliders: Prospects for a global array. Oceanography 22:216–225.
  • Moline, M. A., et al. 2005. Remote environmental monitoring units: An autonomous vehicle for characterizing coastal environments. Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology 22:1797–1808.
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