Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that an aquatic glider operated by researchers at Rutgers University and sent from coastal New Jersey to coastal Spain this year was the first robotic device to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Numerous "unmanned aerial vehicles" - airplanes of various sizes - have made the crossing. The Rutgers glider was the first submersible robot to cross the Atlantic.

Submersible glider spent months collecting data on Atlantic waters

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

She was at sea for 221 days. She was alone, often in dangerous places, and usually out of touch. Her predecessor had disappeared on a similar trip, probably killed by a shark. Yet she was always able to do what was asked, to head in a different direction on a moment's notice and report back without complaint.

So is it any surprise tears were shed when people could finally wrap their arms around her steel torso once more?

"She was a hero," said Rutgers University oceanographer Scott Glenn last week after retrieving an aquatic glider called the Scarlet Knight from the stormy Atlantic off western Spain. The 7-foot-9-inch submersible device, shaped like a large-winged torpedo, had just become the first robot to cross an ocean.

Named after the New Jersey university's athletic teams and officially designated RU-27 in a long line of related devices, this one was always known simply as "Scarlet." Like Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, or perhaps Columbus's Pinta and NiƱa, it seemed more a living thing than a mechanical conveyance. But unlike them, Scarlet crossed the Atlantic without a single passenger.

The people responsible for building, funding and flyingScarlet hope the end of the robot's successful voyage will mark a new start in ocean and climate research.

"We think this will just be a precursor, like Lindbergh's trip across the Atlantic," said Clayton Jones, an engineer at Teledyne Webb Research, in Falmouth, Mass., which made Scarlet. "In a decade we think it will be commonplace to have roving fleets of these gliders making transoceanic trips around the world."

"This really is a seminal event for us," said Richard W. Spinrad, assistant administrator for research in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "We see gliders as offering a whole new world in our capability of using the oceans to help answer society's questions."

"We're ready to do it again," Glenn said from Spain last week, where he, a half-dozen members of the Rutgers team, and a U.S. government official went to pick up the glider from Spanish colleagues. "If we can do it once, we can do it 10 times, and if we can do it 10 times, we can do it 100 times."

More data

Gathering more data from the oceans, which cover 71 percent of the Earth's surface, is essential to understanding global climate change. The temperature, salinity and acidity of ocean water are all affected by atmospheric warming and the accumulation of greenhouse gases. The warm surface layer is the engine that drives hurricanes. Changes in currents can portend changes in weather; understanding currents better can be of great practical use to fishing and oceangoing commerce.

"In general, access to the ocean is the limiting factor to those who do ocean science," said Jerry L. Miller, a senior policy analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who accompanied the research team to Spain. "When we have hundreds of them, or thousands of them, it will revolutionize how we can observe the oceans."

Currently, oceanographic data are gathered in three ways. Satellites collect information on water temperature, color, currents and other surface features. Subsurface water is sampled by the so-called Argo system of 3,000 untethered buoys that wander the oceans, periodically sinking to depths of up to 6,500 feet to take measurements before rising again to the surface and transmitting the information to shore stations. The third way is with manned research vessels, which can cost up to $30,000 a day to operate. At a price of $100,000 to $150,000 apiece (which is likely to drop once large-scale production begins), fleets of aquatic gliders outfitted with varying arrays of physical, chemical, acoustical and optical sensors promise to increase the store of data considerably at reasonable cost. The U.S. Navy has just ordered 150.

Scarlet's recovery on Dec. 4 ended a trip that began April 27 off the coast of New Jersey. For those seven months she was directed by computer, modem, satellite and GPS device from a control room on the Rutgers campus and, one time, from Palmer Research Station in Antarctica. Most of the time, however, the glider was out of contact underwater, moving slowly up and down to depths of 600 feet, safe from ships, nets and storms.

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