Sensorbot Robotic Bubble Swarm For Ocean Exploration

Sensorbots are waterproof robots equipped with biogeochemical sensors; about the size of your fist, they communicate with flashes of blue light. The intent is to deploy swarms of sensorbots in the depths of the ocean to learn more about this remote ecosystem.

(Robotic Bubble Swarms For Ocean Exploration)

“We are leveraging our automation, sensors, biotechnology, and systems expertise to develop unique robots that can be deployed by the hundreds, travel in formation, and communicate together for exploration and discovery. The Sensorbots will enable continuous spatiotemporal monitoring of key elements in the ocean and the ability to respond to events such as underwater earthquakes and hydrothermal vents. Such research is essential for a more thorough understanding of the multiple systems in the oceans – microbes and other sea life, geology, and chemicals.”

Cody Youngbull and Joseph Chao, assistant research professors, are both integral members of the Sensorbot team and have spent years developing the technology. Much of this creative tinkering has taken place in the labs at Biodesign, situated in landlocked Arizona. But in the summer of 2011, Youngbull took the Sensorbots to the deep ocean.

This far-flung endeavor involves the construction of a cabled underwater observatory in the northeast Pacific Ocean, off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia on the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate. This area is home to many dramatic undersea features, including volcanoes and hydrothermal vents – wellsprings of unique life forms.

A high-speed camera situated on the seafloor picks up the signals and stores them for later decoding aboard the ship. As sensorbot technology develops, these orbs may blanket large areas of the ocean and transmit information regularly to a central data hub. Ultimately, Sensorbots will be capable of operating in semi-autonomous robotic swarms, moving under remote control, in a 3D geometric formation through precisely controlled volumes of seawater.

“Sensing webs are an exciting thing,” Youngbull says, “because the scale of phenomena are vast in the oceans.” Rather than delivering a very expensive robot to a single point in space and then serially moving it around, often missing dynamic phenomena, an array of inexpensive Sensorbots can cover a wide field, permitting real-time investigations of earthquakes, biological blooms, and other episodic phenomena.

This reminded me strongly of a similar effort carried out in science fiction writer Robert Silverberg's 1969 novel The Man in the Maze. In the novel, potentially deadly alien worlds are investigated by showering different areas of the planet with a thousand throw-away sensor devices - the recording eye. Here is what one of the recording eyes sent back:

Muller saw a cloud-wrapped planet... it could have been Venus... The recording eye pierced the cloud layer and revealed an unfamiliar, not very Earthlike planet...

Boardman said, "That was taken less than a month ago. We parked a drone ship fifty thousand kilometers up and dropped roughly a thousand eyes on Beta Hydri IV. At least half went straight to the bottom of the ocean...
(Read more about the recording eye)

In his 1995 novel The Diamond Age, science fiction author Neal Stephenson wrote about a similar swarm of aerostat devices tasked with surveillance and security - the dog pod grid:

Atlantis/Shanghai occupied the loftiest ninety percent of New Chusan's land area - an inner plateau about a mile above sea level, where the air was cooler and cleaner. Parts of it were marked off with a lovely wrought-iron fence, but the real border was defended by something called the dog pod grid - a swarm of quasi-independent aerostats...
(Read more about Stephenson's dog pod grid)

From ASU News.

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