Thursday, March 27, 2014


"Most of the science here involves chucking really expensive things into the ocean and hoping that you get them back"

The Slocum gliders are an ongoing project primarily through Rutgers university, using these underwater robots that resemble yellow torpedoes to collect data that would not be realistically possible to collect manually.  They're essentially drones; dropped into the ocean and left alone to follow a pre-programmed course, they propel themselves at about 0.5mph by subtly adjusting their buoyancy to alternately dive and resurface, "gliding" through the water.  Due to this very efficient (although slow) means of propulsion, their batteries can last for extremely long lengths of time.  Even in these cold waters they can be alone in the ocean for up to three weeks, and sometimes more depending on their payload.

The gliders are modular; they have cargo bays that can be fitted with a wide variety of different instruments, to continually monitor and log data such as salinity, clarity, temperature, dissolved gasses, particulate matter and so on.  They're guided by GPS and surface every few hours, linking up with satellites via an antenna in their tail to upload their data and check for new instructions.

In addition to being heavy (about 150lbs), they're not cheap; the base glider alone runs about $150,000, and depending on the instrument packages they put on board they can end up costing near $250,000.  A huge amount of that cost comes from having to ensure military-grade reliability and components that must to function perfectly in extremely diverse environments.  You cell phone might be able to do a lot of crazy things, but if it breaks you just swear and drive to the store and buy a new one.  That's often not an option for the gliders; by the time they're being deployed, additional hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on design, transportation and logistics to get them to the launch point.  That's not when you want to have to scrap the project because someone decided to save a few bucks by using a slightly cheaper design of power regulator.

And yet, something so expensive is dropped into the ocean and left alone, with the hope that it'll come back when it's told.  So the next time you think your car insurance is expensive, just imagine what these guys are probably paying and how the conversation with their agent would go.

"Hey, so we lost our $250,000 robot"
"Lost?  When and where did you last see it?"
"Well we threw it into the middle of the ocean a few weeks ago..."

(And yes, the mountains really were amazing that day)

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