Robots dive into marine science

Swimming robots provide key information for ocean scientists

Lying ill on a research vessel near the Florida Keys, Dr. Mark Patterson had a revelation: we have the technology to build underwater research robots. That was 1991. Today, Patterson’s autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) can be found zooming around Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, or even the icy seas of Antarctica.

Patterson arrived at VIMS in 1992 and had already contacted Jim Sias, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, to build a waterproof housing for his swimming dream machine. With a few small grants, countless conversations with naval and ocean scientists, and several months of weekend tinkering, his first underwater robot, Fetch, swam in the College of William and Mary pool during 1995. Sias-Patterson Incorporated was born the next year, and the first commercial AUV was on the market.

But Patterson’s vision for a comprehensive aquatic research robot was not yet fully realized.  His original hope was to field-test the Fetch prototype by studying internal waves in the Gulf of Maine.  However, delays in production diverted the maiden voyage, and the AUV’s first job was instead to recognize and count fish for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Fetch came alive, was a success, but never got to measure waves in the Gulf of Maine,” Patterson laughs.

Fetch continues to be an essential part of the Patterson research lab at VIMS. Diving down to 1,000 feet for up to 4 hours, the robot can measure water quality (oxygen, salinity, temperature, pH), map the ocean floor, and estimate fish populations. High-frequency sonar combined with a video camera allows Fetch to “recognize and remember what it sees—even identifying fish by species,” says Patterson.  This led to US Patent 722621 issued last year to the College of William & Mary, with Patterson the lead inventor on a team that included former School of Marine Science Master’s student Daniel Doolittle (2003) and Roger Mann, Director of Research and Advisory Services at VIMS.

“The promise of this technology,” he says, “is the capability to measure the ocean as fast as it changes.” Doing so solves a difficulty that has long plagued ocean research.

Fetch has expanded understanding of how coral reefs function in the Florida Keys, mapped the island nation of Bonaire’s reefs with 2 other AUVs, and survived a sea-lion attack while mapping kelp beds off coastal California. This year, the AUV will help Patterson’s team investigate shallow-water hydrothermal vents off Iceland where seeping 11,000-year-old freshwater creates a unique community of sea life.

And Patterson continues to dream. “Swarms are the next big thing. Groups of AUVs working together will allow us to monitor the environment and provide homeland security data all at once.”