This intrepid robot is the Wall-E of the deep sea

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With extra-wide tracks and a bunch of other clever features, the Benthic Rover II can roam the seafloor for years at a time.
Enlarge / With extra-wide tracks and a bunch of different intelligent options, the Benthic Rover II can roam the seafloor for years at a time.

Madison Pobis | MBARI

The Benthic Rover II is the measurement of a compact automobile, though it rocks fats treads, making it extra like a scientific tank. That, together with the two googly-eye-like flotation gadgets on its entrance, offers it a kind of WALL-E vibe. Only as a substitute of exploring a garbage-strewn panorama, BR-II roams the Pacific seafloor, 13,000 ft deep. The robot’s mission: to prowl the squishy terrain in search of clues about how the deep ocean processes carbon.

That mission begins with a wild journey, 180 miles off the coast of Southern California. Scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute decrease BR-II into the water after which … drop it. Completely untethered, the robot free-falls for 2 and a half hours, touchdown on the abyssal plains—nice stretches of what you would possibly generously name muck. “It’s mushy and dusty at the same time,” says MBARI electrical engineer Alana Sherman, coauthor on a new paper in Science Robotics describing findings from the robot’s adventures. “Which is part of the reason it’s a tracked vehicle, and it has these really wide treads.” That further floor space distributes the robot’s weight so it doesn’t sink into the sand.

If you needed to plot the good solution to torture a robot, the deep sea can be it. At these depths the water is chilly, salty (and due to this fact corrosive), and extremely pressurized; there’s an entire lot of liquid pushing down on the robot.

Like the Mars rovers, this robot have to be autonomous. In reality, in some methods it’s even extra troublesome to maintain tabs on a rover 13,000-feet deep than it is a rover on another planet. Radio waves journey nicely in house, it’s simply that they take up to 20 minutes every solution to make the journey between Earth and Mars—and good luck remotely piloting a rover in actual time with that sort of delay. But radio waves hate water. So, as a substitute, BR-II makes use of acoustic alerts to speak to a different robot, a floating glider that MBARI scientists launch from shore 4 occasions a 12 months. The glider, basically a really costly surfboard, travels to the rover’s approximate location, pings it, collects standing updates and pattern knowledge, and fires that data to a satellite tv for pc for the researchers to entry.

A rattail fish captured on BR-II's camera.
Enlarge / A rattail fish captured on BR-II’s digital camera.

MBARI

Notice the simplistic muckiness of the seafloor.
Enlarge / Notice the simplistic muckiness of the seafloor.

MBARI

Since MBARI scientists can’t simply sit of their labs and pilot the rover, it’s by itself. But its directives are easy. Parked on the seafloor, it lowers two oxygen sensors into the muck. This offers the robot a measure of the organic exercise in the sediment, as microbes eat oxygen and spit out carbon dioxide. The rover additionally has a fluorescence digital camera system that casts a blue mild, which makes the chlorophyll in natural matter glow. This offers the robot an thought of how a lot detritus from floor waters, often known as “marine snow,” is making its method all the way down to the seafloor.

The rover sits in a single place like this for 48 hours, then strikes ahead 33 ft. That’s all. “It would not know if it drove off a cliff—all it knows is I’m supposed to drive forward 10 meters,” says Sherman. “But luckily, there are no cliffs around, so we take advantage of the simplicity of the environment to keep the robot more simple.”

Still, there’s an issue: the outsized treads make a multitude of the seafloor. “Even though it is moving very slowly, it doesn’t take much to create this huge dust storm,” says Sherman. “We always want to be driving into the current so that it can push the sediment that is disturbed behind us.” So earlier than the rover strikes, it makes use of a sensor to get an thought of the present route of the … er, present, then heads straight for it.

The benthic rover does this for an entire 12 months, unsupervised: park, take measurements, transfer 33 ft, repeat. Then the scientists steam out of their analysis boat to present it a battery change.

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