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Old Dominion University oceanographers will be at Nauticus, the marine science and technology center in downtown Norfolk, on Thursday, Aug. 16, to explain the workings of an undersea robotic glider that accomplished a New Jersey-to-Virginia Beach research mission during the past four weeks.

The battery-powered glider, dubbed RU01, was pulled from the ocean off Virginia Beach on Wednesday and is on display until mid-day Friday at Nauticus.

Larry Atkinson, the ODU eminent professor who holds the Samuel A. and Fay M. Slover Professorship in Oceanography, will be at the facility from 2 to 3 p.m. on Thursday to provide commentary about the glider and the regional consortium that is using the 5-foot-long robotic devices-the Mid-Atlantic Regional Coastal Ocean Observing Association (MARCOOS).

Teresa Garner, a research scientist at ODU's Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography, will be at Nauticus from 11 a.m. until noon to host visitors who are interested in the glider.

ODU is a member of MARCOOS. Rutgers University's Coastal Ocean Observation Lab, which also is part of MARCOOS, is the home of RU01, RU02, and more than a dozen other submersible robots. Staff members of the New Jersey lab will come to Norfolk on Friday to collect the wayfaring glider and escort it back to New Jersey in an airplane.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, through its Integrated Ocean Observing System, supports MARCOOS projects.

Atkinson said he believes the glider's fascinating mechanics and instrumentation will be of interest to the public. "How does it work? It's very simple and very efficient," he says.

Most of the available electricity is needed to operate a piston that sucks in water to add weight to the glider or pushes out water to make it lighter. As any grade school child could understand, a light glider moves up in the water column and a heavy glider sinks. But wings on the device-like those on a gliding aircraft-convert potential vertical movement to forward movement. The glider travels head-up, head-down, much like a dolphin swims, but not nearly so fast. Its top speed is less than 1 mile per hour.

The efficient mechanics explain how 240 common alkaline C-cell batteries could power the 120-pound glider's 400-mile trip from New Jersey to Virginia, and enable it to dive and surface regularly to collect data and transmit it to a base station.

Gliders can measure temperature, salinity, currents, dissolved oxygen and other chemical and physical characteristics at various depths in the water column. RU01 is designed to work in waters as deep as 800 feet.

Atkinson, whose research focus is coastal oceanography, says the four-week run down the mid-Atlantic continental shelf for RU01 is the first of a series of regular glider missions in the region. He expects data from the missions to boost research in areas such as climatology, fisheries, carbon-cycle studies related to global warming, ecological assessments, and coastal ocean changes caused by hurricanes and other storms.

In fact, gliders can ride under storms, as well as ice caps, collecting data that would not be possible for a research boat to get.

More importantly, the steady and sweeping nature of a glider's data collection would be prohibitively expensive if done by a research boat. "A glider outfitted with instruments costs about $120,000 and is inexpensive to run," Atkinson says. "A research boat costs $5,000 a day to operate. You could amortize the glider with just one of its trips."

This article was posted on: August 16, 2007

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