Quartet of robots attempt record-breaking Pacific swim for science

Two pairs of self-propelled robots called Wave Gliders recently launched from San Francisco on a course that'll see them collectively covering almost 38,000 miles of the Pacific. If they reach their destinations in Japan and Australia, they could set the world record for the longest distance traveled by an unmanned vehicle.

During the 300-day mission called PacX (Pacific Crossing), these special robots are expected to collect some 2.5M pieces of data covering everything from salinity, water temperature, waves, fluorescence and dissolved oxygen levels. The robots will travel in pairs to Hawaii, then splitting up with one pair traversing the Marianas Trench — the deepest and least explored area of the ocean — and landing in Japan. The other will head for Australia.

How could you not be intrigued? There's two ways to participate. First, you can follow the entire expedition online via the Oceans Portal in Google Earth. (Handy instructions to do so here.)

Additionally, Liquid Robotics, the company that built the gliders will be sharing the reams of data collected with the public and they are looking for suggestions on what to do with it. Submit your abstract research idea — to be judged by an international panel of ocean scientists — by April 23, 2012. If your idea best embodies the spirit of exploration and discovery of the PacX mission, you can have access to these amazing robots.

Getting access to these special oceangoing robots is a pretty big deal. After the first robot crossed the Atlantic in 2009, no less than NASA and the Navy have been testing similar vehicles. The potential for vehicles that can harvest their own energy and serve as ongoing, networked monitors of the oceans is huge.

PacX represents the next generation of float gliders. Previous robots would dive and surface to relay data. The PacX uses float-glider devices that use the waves to generate energy for thrust. A floating surfboard shaped wing on the surface houses solar panels and a rudder, and tows a glider with hydrodynamic fins. Every 10 minutes the gliders will collect data and will upload the information to the Iridium satellite network with no need to dive under the surface.

With less than 5% of the oceans having been explored, missions like these are invaluable to answering our questions about one of our most important resources. Add to that the ingenuity of the public participating in the outcome of the mission and there is the potential for more than just breaking a distance record!

PacX Challenge, via PopSci

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