UAF has automated underwater vehicles called "gliders" for collecting data

Published: Nov. 9, 2018 at 10:25 PM AKST
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The University of Alaska Fairbanks has automated underwater vehicles known as "gliders" that can be deployed for months at a time, on their own, propelling through the water and collecting data.

This glider is just one of a team at the Glider Lab at the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Gliders are a class of autonomous underwater vehicles and are designed to fly through the ocean and can be at sea for 90 to 120 days without any human intervention.

Research Analyst with the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Hank Statscewich said, "We're just measuring constantly, so it's really added to our knowledge base because we're sampling so often and saving so much money because these things again they can be at sea for three months without any human intervention."

One project this glider has been a part of is studying the effect of shipping noise on marine mammal's migration pathways and ecological impacts of the changing arctic.

"This is the whale glider, what we affectionately call it," he said.

This specific glider has an instrument called a hydrophone that picks up sound underwater of whales and other marine mammals. When the glider surfaces it processes the data and sends it to the researchers via satellite. The glider tells them, "Hey, I heard five beluga, 15 bowhead, 25 walrus and air guns, so we get a real time representation of how many marine mammals are in the region where the glider is swimming," Statscewich said.

But on one of these missions, this glider gave them some trouble.

"This little tiny air bladder that somehow developed a tiny pinhole leak, and every time it inflated it at the surface, it was pushing air out of the glider, creating a small vacuum, and as it deflated it to dive, it sucked that sea water right in through the a solenoid valve and was just sloshing around inside of the vessel," he said.

After the university's research vessel Sikuliaq went back and rescued the $200,000 glider that was stranded at sea, they were able to fix the leak and return it on its mission.

"Whew, everything worked and it swam almost 2,000 kilometers completely autonomously without anyone having to do any intervention on it again. It was an incredibly successful mission, we got to swim right through a humongous pod of whales, collected incredible data and we're going to be going through that data for a long long time," he said.

Although the Glider Lab has had this glider for two years, it didn't have a name until recently. Their gliders have to earn their names.

"This glider is now called 'Loki', named after the Norse god of mischief because of its little leaky bladder that checked out on all these missions, but all of a sudden as it was out in the big blue ocean, all alone, in the middle of the night, bobbing around, it decided that it needed some attention," he said.

As a physical oceanographer, Statscewich says he can't wait to start picking apart the data that Loki brought home.