July 20, 2012      

As governments and companies seek to better understand the earth?s oceans and retrieve its resources, iRobot Corp.?s enhanced underwater endurance vehicle designed to provide scientists with greater levels of data in a more economic model, the company said recently.

The Seaglider UUV is a long endurance vehicle that has been newly reconfigured to have a larger set of fairings to significantly increase its volume and mass payload capabilities, iRobot said. The previous Seaglider had a payload volume of 3,200 cubic centimeters.

“Imagine for ocean studies our ability to gather much larger volumes of data at a larger order of magnitude at a lower cost.”

David Heinz,
VP of Maritime at iRobot

The Bedford, Mass.-based company expanded the volume 6.5 times to 21,000 cubic centimeters to allow for additional sensors, said David Heinz, vice president of Maritime at iRobot. In shallow water it is ?very efficient in terms of battery usage and provides the capability to go deep and do that mission without having to change out equipment or reballast,? he said. This will give scientists more flexibility to decide the types of data they want to capture.

The vehicle uses changes in buoyancy to glide through the water column and uses its antenna so it can communicate to a base station anywhere in world and send data and receive commands, the company said.

?A research ship typically cost $40,000 a day to operate and a glider costs $400 a day,?? Heinz noted. ?So imagine for ocean studies our ability to gather much larger volumes of data at a larger order of magnitude at a lower cost.?

SeagliderUUV

For example, to study temperature changes that can affect climate changes, putting several gliders in the ocean provides the ability to collect more samples. ?With a glider I can sample every 20 meters and because the resolution is better, it provides a much better fidelity model,?? Heinz said.

The Seaglider can travel thousands of miles and is designed for missions lasting several months. The new sensors can measure temperature, salinity, depths, pressure and currents. This is significant for scientists, since 70 percent of the earth is covered by water and it is the area least understood in terms of its impact on organisms and mammals as well as environmental effects related to spills and how they impact ecosystems and in some cases, food chains, Heinz said.

The Seaglider costs around $125,000 and depending on the number of sensors, the price can double, Heinz said, adding, ?but imagine that versus buying a multimillion dollar research ship and having to operate that ever day.?

About 135 gliders have been deployed in the past six years, he said. They are being used by the U.S. Navy and researchers to study oceans, and could also be used by the gas and oil industries to understand the implications of hurricanes. ?I believe we are today in the same place that unmanned air vehicles were 15 years ago; right at the beginning of people understanding the capabilities of what these systems can provide,?? Heinz said.

The new Seaglider configuration will help provide a greater understanding of physical and biological sciences of the oceans, including their salinity, temperatures and currents, as well as chloroform and food processing, what is growing in the water, how much of it, and acoustic sensors to understand the population of fish and their migration patterns, according to Heinz.

Environmental compliance is another area of future growth, he said, such as when a drilling operation starts, studies can be conducted ?to determine whether there are toxins going in the water and are they impacting fish life, and is there too much noise driving away mammals in that area,?? he said.

A third area of growth is the ability to look at physical operations and explorations, so that when offshore mining operations are conducted, ?you begin to understand as we go deeper, the problem of running a long drilling rig ? before it physically hits the rock bed of the ocean,? and the ability to drill safely without impacting fish and mammals.

While ships may be deployed to monitor what is going on around that platform, he said, to determine whether there is gas, oil or hydro gas or other minerals in high concentrations that are worthy of exploring, ?We think we can put sensors on gliders that provide that [information] at a fraction of the cost.?