New Tech Could Help Explore Ocean Warming

High-tech gadgets study various changes

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers are working on new autonomous underwater vehicles to study changes in the oceans. 
  • An MIT professor is using advanced computer techniques to develop fins for underwater robots. 
  • Data collected by underwater robots could improve climate change models.
Individual underwater submarines surrounded by fish in the ocean.

Dana Neibert / Getty Images

A new generation of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) could revolutionize undersea exploration and shed light on ocean warming. 

Some new underwater vehicles, like the Mare-IT project, are designed for industrial purposes like inspecting drilling rigs or wind turbines. The project's two-armed underwater robot is used for complex inspection and maintenance tasks. But researchers say the more urgent need is for scientific exploration. 

"We need to measure the amount of heat the ocean and atmosphere is absorbing each year," Hugh Roarty, an ocean engineer at Rutgers University and IEEE Member, told Lifewire in an email interview. "This will help provide guidance on the climate models we are using to make decisions and shape policy."

Underwater Drones

The Mare-IT project exemplifies how underwater vehicles are becoming more like robots. 

The Cuttlefish craft made by Mare-IT has two deepsea gripping systems attached to its ventral side to manipulate objects underwater. Due to its special design and AI-based control, it can change its center of gravity and buoyancy during a dive and adopt and maintain any orientation.

Ocean engineers are also using advances in computing to make flexible and morphing fish fins for use in underwater robotics. MIT professor Wim van Rees and his team are using numerical simulation approaches to explore designs for underwater devices that have an increase in degrees of freedom, such as fish-like fins.

The Mare-IT Cuttlefish Craft


"Fish have intricate internal musculature to adapt the precise shape of their bodies and fins," van Rees said in a news release. "This allows them to propel themselves in many different ways, well beyond what any man-made vehicle can do in terms of maneuverability, agility, or adaptivity."

The techniques pioneered by van Rees could lead to new types of UAVs. Better autonomous platforms and vehicles may allow researchers to make measurements that are too costly for research ships, Roarty said. 

Eyes on the Deep

Getting a better picture of what's underwater could help us understand what's happening to the rest of the planet. The ocean covers 70 percent of the earth, but so far, only 20 percent of the surface has been mapped, Graeme Rae, the CEO of ocean research company Hyperkelp, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"However, mapping the surface doesn't tell you what lives there and what the conditions are like, and with vast numbers of unknown species living in the oceans," he added. "We need to understand how they live together and interact with each other and how climate change is affecting them."

To study the ocean effectively, researchers need in-situ measurements with cameras and people aboard submersibles. Right now, there are only about 10 crewed vehicles in the world capable of doing this intensive research, Rae said.

"Imagine trying to understand the weather, flora, and fauna of the entire United States by landing a Cessna in one location, staying for a few hours, taking some pictures and measurements, and then leaving," he said. "That's what crewed missions to the seafloor are like."

Rae's company HyperKelp is working on a system to monitor glacial meltwater coming off Greenland. Scientists need sensors that can stay on station and measure the salinity and temperature profiles at multiple depths to get a clear picture of how fast the glaciers are melting, Rae said. The measurements could give better estimates of global sea-level rise. 

"Our approach is to be a persistent buoy-based measurement that can measure and report over periods of months or even years at the same spot," Rae said. 

Underwater robots could even find new food sources, Terry Tamminen, the CEO of AltaSea, told Lifewire in an email interview. His nonprofit is partnering on innovative high-tech submersibles. 

"Seaweed can become new sustainable sources of food, fuel, energy, pharmaceuticals, industrial materials, and a great storehouse of carbon," he said. 

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