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An undersea robotic glider dubbed RU01 that has been collecting oceanographic data since July 18 in waters off the Atlantic coast between New Jersey and Virginia will come out of the water and into the limelight in Hampton Roads this week.

Scientists at Old Dominion University, who are part of a research consortium called the Mid-Atlantic Regional Coastal Ocean Observing Association (MARCOOS), plan on Wednesday, Aug. 15, to participate in the retrieval of the 5-foot, torpedo-like device off Virginia Beach. RU01 will be taken to Nauticus, the marine science and technology center in downtown Norfolk, where it will be on display from early Wednesday afternoon until about noon on Friday.

Rutgers University's Coastal Ocean Observation Lab, which also is part of MARCOOS and the home of RU01, RU02, and more than a dozen other submersible robots, will send staff members to Norfolk to collect the wayfaring device 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.

The formal name of the robot is Slocum Coastal Electric Glider, so called by its manufacturer, Webb Research Co., to honor Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail single-handedly around the world. It is a glider because it has no propeller. It is electric because it runs on 240 common alkaline C-cell batteries.

Larry Atkinson, the ODU eminent professor who holds the Samuel A. and Fay M. Slover Professorship in Oceanography, believes the glider's fascinating mechanics 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 one set of 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. The Slocum coastal gliders are 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 for a research boat to accomplish. "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 14, 2007

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