I’ve long had an interest in robotic systems in scientific research. There’s been lots in this area in astronomy, with the growth of both remote and robotic observatories. Other scientists are developing robots for use in dangerous icy environments. But some of the most interesting work in this area is happening in ocean science, with everything from fixed sensor nets, to electronic tags on squid, and chemical tags in baby clownfish, to semi-autonomous thermal gliders.

So I was interested to see that the NSF has just awarded a $1 million grant to create automated explorers at much smaller scales. The grant will allow a team at Scripps

to design and deploy autonomous underwater explorers, or AUEs. AUEs will trace the fine details of oceanographic processes vital to tiny marine inhabitants.

While oceanographers have been skilled in detailing large-scale ocean processes, a need has emerged to zero in on functions unfolding at smaller scales. By defining localized currents, temperature, salinity, pressure and biological properties, AUEs will offer new and valuable information about a range of ocean phenomena.

“We’re seeing great success in the global use of ocean profiling floats to document large-scale circulation patterns and other physical and chemical attributes of the deep and open seas,” said Phillip Taylor of NSF’s division of ocean sciences. “These innovative AUEs will allow researchers to sample the environments of coastal regions as well, and to better understand how small organisms operate in the complex surroundings of the oceans.”

The miniature robots will aid in obtaining information needed for developing marine protected areas, determining critical nursery habitats for fish and other animals, tracking harmful algae blooms, and monitoring oil spills.

There’s a video on YouTube about the robotics and the future of ocean science, but be warned, it’s an hour long.

This seems like a technology that could be really cool, and not just because it pushes automated exploration to a new, smaller scale: AUEs that are very small are likely to become pretty cheap, which means that sooner or later they’ll be adopted, appropriated, or copied by amateur scientists (or citizen scientists, as some call them). Amateurs aren’t likely to tag dolphins or sharks, but an amateur naturalist living in Carmel or Cape May could pretty capably study the micro-environments of the beaches nearby, producing a cross between Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne and a more quantitative intensive area study.

[To the tune of Genesis, “Home by the Sea / Second Home by the Sea,” from the album Live at the Los Angeles Forum (October 16 1986) (I give it 3 stars).]