Equipped with a thermometer, cameras and a nose that can smell, an autonomous drone known as The Edge spent a good part of June flying over the Pacific Ocean. The Santa Monica-based drone company FlightWave provided the valuable asset on a recent Schmidt Ocean Institute voyage to gather crucial data on the ocean’s changing temperatures and the impact on marine life.
A month later, FlightWave co-founder and CTO Trent Lukaczyk says scientists are still analyzing the massive amounts of data collected by his drone, three robotic submarines and the Institute’s research ship R/V Falkor. The tests successfully demonstrated that autonomous vehicles can work together to simultaneously measure conditions under the sea, along the surface and in the air.
“It means that we can collect a lot more data more efficiently. It’s one step closer to us creating a persistent presence in the ocean, monitoring the ocean for longer in larger and larger areas,” Lukaczyk said. “In a year we’ll likely still be finding things that are new in the data, there’s just so much.”
The technologies used in the demonstration will be crucial to tracking climate change, ocean acidification, fishing impacts, pollution, waste, loss of habitat and more.
The team of scientists focused on the North Pacific Subtropical front, an underwater boundary where cold, fresh water from the north meets salty water from the south, about 1,000 nautical miles off the Southern California coast. The extensive mission lasted nearly a month, with the robots traveling over 1,000 nautical miles for about 500 hours, according to the Schmidt Ocean Institute. The Edge itself flew two dozen times, totalling 10 hours.
“I think it is essential for humankind to understand the big picture because, in the end, we are talking about the life-support system for the Earth,” said lead scientist Dr. Joao Borges de Sousa. “The oceans are an important component of that life-support system and they are not as tremendously huge as people tend to assume. In fact, if all the oceans’ water were put into a bubble, most of us would be stunned to see how impressively small it looks when compared to the Earth’s size. And, yet, science still lacks the technology and tools to study the oceans overall health and functioning.”
Lukaczyk said the gas-smelling nose attachment on the Edge was a NASA prototype sensor detect Dimethylsulfide, or DMS, a gas emitted by dying phytoplankton. Clouds form over the water when the gas makes its way into the atmosphere, cooling the ocean’s temperature. Lukaczyk says only two of the sensors exist, and both were used in the mission. The Santa Monica entrepreneur said studying gases emitted from phytoplankton help scientists assess the health of the entire food chain.
“It’s really the canary in the coal mine,” Lukaczyk said. “You think of a drone as a camera these days, but gas sensors, are the future.”
The former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, and his wife, Wendy, established the Schmidt Ocean Institute in 2009 to support oceanographic research and technology development.