The Benthic Rover II is the size of a compact car, though it rocks fat treads, making it more like a scientific tank. That, together with the two wobbly-eye-like floating bodies on the front, gives it a kind of WALL-E vibe. Just instead of exploring a landscape strewn with garbage, BR-II roams the Pacific ocean floor, 13,000 feet deep. The robot’s mission: to roam the muddy terrain in search of clues about how the deep sea processes carbon.
This mission begins with a wild ride 180 miles off the coast of Southern California. Scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute lower the BR-II into the water and … then drop it. Completely unattached, the robot falls in free fall for two and a half hours and lands on the abyssal plains – great stretches of what one could generously call dirt. “It’s muddy and dusty at the same time,” says MBARI electrical engineer Alana Sherman, co-author at a new paper in Science Robotics describes findings from the adventures of the robot. “That’s one of the reasons it’s a tracked vehicle and it has these really wide treads.” This extra surface distributes the weight of the robot so it doesn’t sink into the sand.
If you wanted to find the perfect way to torture a robot it would be the deep sea. At these depths, the water is cold, salty (and therefore corrosive) and under high pressure; There is a lot of liquid pressing on the robot.
As Mars rover, this robot has to be autonomous. In fact, in a way, it actually is more It is more difficult to keep an eye on a rover as deep as 13,000 feet than it is to keep an eye on a rover on another planet. Radio waves move well in space, it’s just that they need it up to 20 minutes any way to make the journey between Earth and Mars – and good luck remotely controlling a rover in real time with that kind of delay. But radio waves to hate Water. Instead, BR-II uses acoustic signals to speak to another robot, a floating glider that MBARI scientists release from shore four times a year. The glider, essentially a very expensive surfboard, travels to the rover’s approximate location, pings it, collects status updates and sample data, and sends that information to a satellite that researchers can access.
Since MBARI scientists can’t just sit in their labs and control the rover, he’s alone. But his instructions are simple. Parked on the ocean floor, it lowers two oxygen sensors into the dirt. This gives the robot a measure of the biological activity in the sediment, as microbes consume oxygen and spit out carbon dioxide. The rover also has a fluorescence camera system that casts blue light that makes the chlorophyll in organic matter glow. This gives the robot an idea of how much debris from surface water known as ”
“Makes its way to the sea floor.
The rover sits in one place for 48 hours and then moves 33 feet forward. That’s all. “It doesn’t know if it came off a cliff – it just knows to drive 10 meters forward,” says Sherman. “But luckily there are no cliffs, so we’re taking advantage of the simplicity of the environment to keep the robot simple.”
Still, there is a problem: the oversized steps devastate the ocean floor. “Although it’s moving very slowly, it doesn’t take much to create this huge dust storm,” says Sherman. “We always want to drive into the current so that it can push the thrown up sediment behind us.” Before the rover moves, it uses a sensor to create an image of the current direction of the… uh, current and then steers directly towards it .
The benthic rover does this unattended for a whole year: park, measure, move 10 meters, repeat. Then the scientists steam off in their research boat to change the battery.
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