Drones In The Antarctic

San Diego California researchers are deploying new tools to study the Antarctic’s underwater food web and for the first time they’re using autonomous drones to more safely explore the Antarctic underwater universe.


San Diego, California, researchers are deploying new tools to study the Antarctic's underwater food web, and for the first time, they're using autonomous drones to more safely explore the Antarctic underwater universe.

Here is the story.

Krill are tiny crustaceans that got a moment in the spotlight during the 2011 animated film 'Happy Feet Two.'

Will, we are krill.

We are meant to look the same.

Not me, Bill.

There is only one of me in all the world.

I am one in a krill-ion.

Krill are an important part of the Antarctic food web that feeds whales, seals, penguins and people.

The tiny animals are known for their large underwater swarms.

So this is all we are, lunch.

To think we spent our whole lives not knowing the truth.

Goodbye, krill world.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists have tracked fluctuating krill populations for years.

NOAA's Christian Reiss says it's part of an international effort.

So we study krill so that we understand whether its trends in abundance are likely to be influenced by how much fishing effort we do, but also whether that fishing effort will then impact the upper trophic levels, like penguins and seals.

But packing up a research vessel and traveling to the bottom of the world takes time and money.

Both are in short supply at a federal agency with an eye on shrinking budgets.

So Reiss says his team hopes to do much of that work with autonomous drones.

We can collect data on water conditions.

We can collect data on how much food is out there for krill, and then literally we can collect data on how much biomass of krill there is.

Anthony Cossio handles one of two Teledyne-manufactured undersea gliders.

Go in.

Okay, I'll go up a little bit.

Hold the outside.

He's inside a unique lab at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla.

All right.

Let it go.

Will it stay right there?

Yep, looks good.

You got the tail?

All right.

Let's take it up.

The 66-foot-long tank here holds more than 520,000 gallons of seawater.

Let's go south.

That makes it large enough to put one of the gliders through its paces.

All right.

Let's put it down.

You got it, Stephanie?


Once in the water, the glider's software takes over.

At the surface, it'll connect with a satellite.

And then it'll go get its GPS coordinates, make sure it knows where it's at, figure out where it's going based off of the directions we told it, and then it starts to dive.

Like, right now it's starting to dive.

Today, the mission is a couple of routine dives inside the large tank.

The watertight drone is slow but deliberate.

These are our deep gliders, so they go to 1,000 meters, and these are also the biggest gliders that Teledyne has manufactured.

Jen Walsh is one of three pilots that will watch over the drones on their long winter mission in the Antarctic.

She says the machines will do most of the work when they're in the field.

They'll dive and surface as they go back and forth over a preplanned survey area.

Piloting is mostly a hands-off operation.

If the glider is in an area of not very compli-- or complex bathymetry, we're not worried about ice where it is, maybe it's pretty far offshore at this point, sometimes that just means keeping an eye on it, making sure it's surfacing when we anticipate that it's going to surface, and sometimes I won't have to get it or give it any direction at all.

The vessels will have to navigate very cold and possibly rough seas.

A lot can go wrong.

Walsh says the drones do surface and check in regularly, and she can monitor the gliders in San Diego on any Internet-connected computer.

There's the connections.

When the glider surfaces and connects the satellite, it has a very specific ding-ding sound that it makes, and it is like a Pavlovian response.

My husband at home will hear it.

'Oh, your glider is up.'

And it just means it's connected, which is good because if it's doing 1,000-meter dives, which it's going to do in the Antarctic, that can take up to 4 hours.

Research biologist Anthony Cossio dropped the drones into the water off the coast of San Diego.

The vessel spent 2 weeks at sea practicing maneuvers over and around the San Diego Trough, which is just off the coast of La Jolla.

NOAA officials say the vessels will head south this fall for their first research mission in the Antarctic.