Coordinated Robotics 2: ʻAuʻAu Channel

Honolulu, Hawaii USA
A selection of the technology used on the first Coordinated Robotics expedition.

R/V Falkor will serve as a base of operations for teams of roboticists from the University of Sydney, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Rhode Island, and University of Michigan, to deploy a fleet of autonomous vehicles to gather data in and around the ʻAuʻAu channel. Along the coasts of west Maui, this integrated reef ecosystem includes some of the most extensive and diverse mesophotic coral ecosystems in the world. The engineers will test and gather observations related to several challenges in robotics and machine learning, while improving our understanding of the relationships between bathymetry, robot-gathered images and quantitative habitat information. The different vehicles have varying specialties, including mapping, imaging, sampling, and gathering data. This expedition will help to create a framework for multiple vehicles operating at the same time and in the same space, markedly improving the ability to effectively gather data for high level characterization of marine environments to guide autonomous survey planning. This work follows the 2015 Coordinated Robotics cruise completed on Falkor in the Timor Sea region.  The focus on high level automation of multi-robotic cooperative planning and marine ecosystem characterization will allow for the development of new methodology, advancing high level autonomy in multi-robotic systems.

Eddy Exploration and Ecosystem Dynamics

Honolulu, Hawaii  USA
The 2018 EDDIES expedition will combine the use of satellites, ships, and autonomous vehicles to survey mesoscale eddy fields in the North Pacific Ocean as these expansive coherent features propagate westward across the oligotrophic gyre. Simons Foundation on Ocean Processes and Ecology/David Karl and Edward Delong

Ocean microbes produce at least fifty percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere while removing carbon dioxide. They are the foundation of every marine food web, which supports our global ocean fisheries. Principal Investigators and SCOPE co-directors Drs. David Karl and Edward DeLong, their SCOPE team from the University of Hawai’i plus six additional institutions, and engineers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) will be working together to test new ways of adaptively sampling oceanographic features, to better understand the role of microbes in ways never before possible. This expedition will use a suite of oceanographic instruments to survey and track systems of currents – called “mesoscale eddies” – that exist within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG). These eddy systems create vortices and change properties of the ocean environment inside as they move westward, impacting the productivity and cycling of the NPSG, an important open ocean ecosystem. The SCOPE team will deploy three seawater-sampling Long-Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (LRAUVs) from Falkor, while operating in tandem with SeaGliders, Wire Walkers, and other robotic platforms. The LRAUVs will characterize the eddy system, map the depths where enough light penetrates for photosynthesis, and take chemical and biological samples from within eddy systems, providing a unique insight into their duration, stability and influence on the ocean systems. This information will be used to improve current ocean models, which are critical for developing expectations on the health of future oceans.

Voyage to the White Shark Café

Honolulu, Hawaii – San Diego, California

White sharks are predacious, warm bodied sharks known to forage around pinniped colonies along the west coast of North America. Principal Investigator Dr. Barbara Block, Stanford University, and her team, have been using satellite tagging to track shark migrations for years. They and other white shark researchers have found that a large number of white sharks in the coastal waters off California and Mexico migrate annually to a virtually unknown and unstudied region halfway between Hawaii and Baja. This area has been nicknamed the “White Shark Cafe,” but why these apex predators leave the prey-rich California coast and migrate offshore remains a mystery. This expedition on Falkor will take a multidisciplinary team of oceanographers, marine ecologists, and molecular biologists to the Café with the goal of potentially locating tagged white sharks and investigating their oceanographic environment. Building a complete understanding of the sharks’ biology and their role in these offshore pelagic ecosystems requires learning why this midwater area seems to be vital to shark’s ecology.

Exploring the Ensenada Front with Multiple Robotics

San Diego, California USA
The research aims to establish a new method for observing dynamic, constantly changing ocean systems with autonomous vehicles including aerial, surface, and underwater vehiclesUniversidade do Porto Faculdade de Engenharia

Principal Investigator, Dr. João Borges de Sousa, University of Porto, will lead an innovative multi-vehicle expedition to the Ensenada Front, where cool, life-filled waters off the California Current end abruptly, forming a natural boundary in the ocean. In this area of differing conditions, the team will deploy several autonomous vehicles to find, track, and sample physical, chemical, and biological features of the ocean on time-space scales not previously possible by ship or aircraft studies alone. The overall goal is to establish a new method for observing the ocean with unmanned aerial, surface, and underwater vehicles orchestrated from an ocean space control center aboard Falkor. The team will utilize the collected data for planning and execution control to coordinate the vehicles performing complex sampling tasks. This expedition is focused on optimizing autonomous robotic survey, operations, and planning processes, as it is returning with new, insightful data. Unique to this mission, an anthropologist will be onboard looking at how best to organize the interactions among the engineers, scientists, and vehicles as the robots gain higher levels of intelligence and autonomy.

Solving Microbial Mysteries with Autonomous Technology

San Diego, California USA
A photo of microscopic marine diatoms—a key phytoplankton group.Prof. Gordon T. Taylor / Stony Brook University

The quantity of “fixed nitrogen” (usually ammonium and nitrate) in the ocean is critical for the strength of the biological carbon pump. Phytoplankton, which form the base of the marine food web, utilize these nitrogen nutrients for growth. In oxygen deficient zones (ODZs), where oxygen concentrations drop to extremely low levels, microbial processes lead to the conversion of fixed nitrogen into nitrogen gas, which is not available to most phytoplankton. However, these processes and interactions are not well understood. It is difficult to collect, move, and incubate seawater from ODZs without oxygen contamination. Professor Karen Casciotti, Stanford University, and Professor Andrew Babbin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and their team will attempt to find a solution. On a three week expedition aboard Falkor, the interdisciplinary team of oceanographers, biogeochemists, and engineers will test, modify, and apply a new generation of autonomous in situ incubation devices that take measurements and record data. They will assess the new device’s performance against state of the art deckboard incubations to determine the new technology’s accuracy, as well as measure the rates and processes of nitrogen transformation in the region. This research will take place in one of the largest natural marine oxygen deficient zones in the Eastern Tropical North Pacific Ocean.

Adaptive Robotics at Barkley Canyon & Hydrate Ridge

Astoria, Oregon USA 
Chemosynthetic Community and Gas Hydrates at a Cold Seep. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

Decisions made in the field play an important role in determining the scientific value of the data products that are collected during research cruises. In particular, missions that involve multiple underwater vehicles need to be coordinated and adapted based on up-to-date information as it is gathered, in order to make best use of the available observational capabilities. This expedition led by Principal Investigator Dr. Blair Thornton, University of Southampton (adjunct University of Tokyo), will use on-site sensor measurements for adaptive planning of underwater robotic surveys. The team will perform simultaneous deployments of multiple underwater platforms using 3D visual mapping techniques, along with in­ situ chemical and biological sensing. This will allow the scientists and engineers to gather data in complex and dynamically changing environments like gas ­hydrate fields and cold seeps. The amount of gas in oceanic hydrates is thought to make up a significant proportion of the worldwide natural gas reserves, and scientists believe that gas hydrate fields play an extremely important role in the stabilization of Earth’s climate. They also sustain some of the richest known ecosystems on the seafloor. While these hotspots of biological activity can extend over several hectares, their locations can shift quickly; because of this, stationary observation platforms alone cannot capture the dynamic nature of these environments. Since the time-scales of these changes are relatively rapid, studies need to take place frequently – a difficult and expensive task to accomplish with traditional research vessels. With specialized technology being tested on this expedition, researchers will be able to gather better data in these challenging environments by leveraging information as it is collected to make informed decisions about the observations. By collecting geophysical, biological, and chemical data, the team will create 3D visual reconstructions of ocean floor structures, overlaid with chemical and biological information in the regions that are of greatest interest

Hunting Bubbles: Understanding Plumes of Seafloor Methane

Astoria, Oregon USA 
Numerous distinct methane streams emanating from the seafloor at a cold-seep site. Image via NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition.Okeanos Explorer Program

Release of methane gas from the land and ocean are thought to be related to historical, large-scale changes in the Earth’s climate. As the result of organic matter decomposition, marine sediments contain the largest known reservoir of methane on the planet. These reservoirs are released into the ocean through a variety of geological mechanisms such as seafloor seeps, hydrothermal vents, etc. Principal Investigators Drs. Scott Wankel and Anna Michel, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, are interested in studying methane release at Hydrate Ridge off the coast of Oregon in the Northeastern Pacific. Scientists and engineers will collect and analyze bubbles within rising plumes and the nearby water column to understand the processes that govern methane escape and transfer from active release sites to the water column and atmosphere. Using Falkor and Schmidt Ocean Institute’s remotely operated vehicle SuBastian, the team will implement several new cutting-edge technologies including novel in-situ chemical and isotope sensors, advanced shipboard analytical techniques and instrumentation, novel deep-sea stereo imaging capabilities, and advanced molecular biological approaches.

Characterizing Venting and Seepage Along the California Coast

San Diego, California USA 
Carbonate vent harboring numerous rockfish. Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust. Courtesy of Ocean Exp. Trust.

The complex ocean floor off the coast of California is known as the Southern California Borderland. This is an area with varying geographic features such as vents and seeps and is constantly undergoing change. Although hydrothermal vent and hydrocarbon seep systems have been widely studied, there are still many long-standing questions about these dynamic ecosystems. This expedition aboard Falkor, led by Principal Investigator Peter Girguis, Harvard University, seeks to conduct an ROV-based geophysical, geological, geochemical, and biological characterization of the venting and seepage in the Southern California Borderland. The science team will use this information to determine if the vents and seeps in this area are biologically relevant sources of dissolved gases and metals to the coastal water column. This research will also gain insight into how the biology at different sites is related, and the path that fauna took to get to such isolated sites. Lastly, the team will be looking for evidence that the vents and seeps support ecosystems by providing valuable habitat, food breeding, and nursery grounds to species that don’t live in seclusion in these sites, such as commercially relevant fish.

Interdisciplinary Investigation of a New Hydrothermal Vent Field

San Diego, California – Manzanillo, Mexico
Southern Pescadero Basin venting structures nourish dense communities of Oasisia tubeworms.MBARI

In 2015, a Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) led research expedition to the Gulf of California discovered a distinctive hydrothermal field in the Southern Pescadero Basin. In 2018, a science team led by Principal Investigator Robert Zierenberg, University of California Davis, will return aboard Falkor to conduct a geological, geochemical, and biological study of this new vent field. This interdisciplinary research seeks to understand the ecosystem transitions from seeps to vents, and the various implications for the associated environments. This includes all of the interactions that relate to tectonics, biogeochemistry, microbiology, and ecology. Of particular interest is the transition from seeps to vents and the environments with their various combinations and implications for the associated ecosystems. A wide array of tools will be used to examine the hydrothermal vents that have formed carbonate chimneys at depths over 3,500 meters. The science team conducting this work will use multibeam mapping, a MBARI developed autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), and Schmidt Ocean Institute’s remotely operated vehicle ROV SuBastian, to map species distribution and habitat, and allow targeted sampling of subseafloor microbial communities. Scientists will also take measurements of vent fluid, pore-water, and heat flow to establish the geochemical context and assess densities, distribution patterns, and diversity of associated fauna. This will be the first exploration since discovering the area, and scientists expect to advance our understanding of this deep sea environment.

New Approaches To Autonomous Exploration At The Cocos Ridge

Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Richard Camilli releases a glider during the 2015 SOI cruise “Coordinated Robotics.”SOI / Logan Mock-Bunting