Eye spy, robots don’t lie

The wave glider, for autonomous exploration fo the ocean. Image courtesy of Liquid Robotics

There are seven billion people on the planet, meaning there are now up to 14 billion eyeballs capable of monitoring the state of our shared environment and the life-improving infrastructure – water, energy and communications – we have come to depend on.

These days, those eyes are more likely to be glued on iPhone, computer and television screens than on the natural or built environment around them, particularly remote areas that populations tend to avoid – or forget about. But just as technology is capturing our collective attention span, it is also watching our backs, and raising red flags when natural systems and critical infrastructure face threats or are showing signs of stress.

Robots, some the result of original engineering and others inspired by nature, are snooping around our oceans and forests, crawling along hydro lines and gas pipelines, and even posing as bugs and birds as they sniff out chemicals in the air. Many are designed to operate autonomously on an inexhaustible supply of renewable energy.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University refer to such machines as “data mules” for their ability to work tirelessly in challenging situations, “giving scientists the capability to collect high fidelity data over large geographic regions and extended periods.”

Silicon Valley firm Liquid Robotics has taken that robot advantage to our oceans. The company makes a self-propelled, fully autonomous marine research drone that scours the oceans collecting scientific data with solar-powered sensors. Called the Wave Glider, it is the first marine robot to use energy from ocean waves to propel itself without fuel.

“Most people have been trained to try to harness waves for electricity generation, and that turns out to be really, really hard,” said James Gosling, chief software architect at Liquid Robotics. “But getting thrust? That’s worked out well for us.”

Each Wave Glider comes in two parts. The first floats on the wavy surface of the water and looks like a surfboard covered in solar panels. It is connected by a six-metre “umbilical” cord to a multi-winged device below called a glider.

The motion of the waves causes the board to bob up and down in the water – movement that is mimicked below by the glider. The wings and fin on the glider are designed in such a way that the up and down movement is translated into forward thrust. Navigation can be controlled remotely or pre-programmed into the robot.

As Gosling said, it works well – so well that four Wave Gliders captured a Guinness World Record in March when they each travelled 6,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean on a meandering journey from the shoreline of San Francisco to Hawaii. And they’re still moving. Two are on route to Japan and two to Australia, with plans to complete their 16,700-km voyage by early 2013.

The sensors on the robots will collect and wirelessly transmit an unprecedented amount of detailed information about ocean conditions, including ocean temperature, wave height, weather conditions, water quality and chemistry. These and others will shed light on the impacts of global climate change and pollution.

There are other approaches. Researchers at Michigan State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Essex in the United Kingdom are each working on their own designs of battery-powered robots that mimic the movement of fish. Each is equipped with sensors that can detect oil slicks, measure water quality and do underwater environmental reconnaissance.

“Autonomously exploring and investigating a harbour, the fish can work together to monitor and track down sources of pollution,” said Luke Speller, who leads a pan-European project called SHOAL that has several of the robots monitoring a Spanish port.

On land, there’s also no shortage of innovation taking place. Sensor-equipped robots, moving around on tracks and cables, are expected to be used to track biodiversity, assess biochemical cycles and take note of unusual environmental changes in American forests as part of the ambitious $500-million National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

NEON, a project of the U.S. National Science Foundation, has the vision of being a continental-scale observatory that over 30 years will collect data concerning the impacts of climate change on natural resources. Development of the first two sites began in June – one in the Harvard Forest in Massachusetts, the other in Melrose, Florida.

Robotic eyes have also been developed to keep watch over energy infrastructure. General Electric, for example, has designed robots that can climb up wind turbine towers (with no fear) and inspect the condition of blades and other equipment. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a non-profit research organization for the utility sector, has built a solar-powered robot that spends its days independently crawling kilometres of electricity transmission lines looking for equipment defects, wear and tear, signs of stress, and overgrown trees that have the potential to spark outages.

Andrew Phillips, director of transmission at the institute, said that using a robot in this way reduces risks to workers, uses less energy, and is up to 70 per cent less expensive than sending out a manned helicopter to perform in-air inspections.

Perhaps the most unique robots designed to keep tabs on the environment are RoboBees, developed by engineers at Harvard University. Inspired by bees, they have insect-like wings, an electronic nervous system that acts like a small brain, and sensors that simulate a bug’s eyes and antennae.

Roboticist Robert Wood, who is leading the RoboBees research, said the plan is to develop a colony of autonomous robot bees for a number of applications, including environmental exploration, weather and climate mapping, and traffic monitoring.

He said the decision to mimic bees was an easy one. “They are social insects. They bring about the notion of many working together towards some interesting end.”

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