An underwater drone lets researchers listen to the ocean

Complete with solar panels, GPS and satellite technology, an ocean-going drone named “Blackbeard the Wave Glider” provides oceanographers new opportunities to study the soundscape of the sea.


'Blackbeard' may bring to mind the infamous English pirate, but scientists have developed an oceangoing drone with the same name to explore environmental oceanic conditions.

Complete with solar panels, GPS, and satellite technology, Blackbeard the wave glider provides oceanographers new opportunities to study the soundscape of the sea.

Okay, Frank.

I want you to grab the handle on the other side and lift.

1, 2, 3.

You have to be careful when handling Blackbeard.

Oh, that's Blackbeard the wave glider.

It has a weather station.

It has GPS and satellite-communication antennas.

And then this is a radar reflector.

It has an all-around white light so it's visible from the surface of the sea by other vessels at night.

It's got solar panels to power all of that.

There's a battery pack inside and a computer that runs all the sensors.

This is the satellite, um... antenna that sends lots of conditional data, so you can send more than just text-message-sized things with this.

But now you get a better idea that this part floats at the surface, and this is 20 feet long, and this part sinks and swims.

And this is what pulls Blackbeard.

It may look like a giant set of window blinds, but it's actually an underwater paddle that opens and closes its levers for propulsion.

Combining that with the movement of the waves on the surface, and there's enough power to slowly tow the wave glider.

This is where the rudder is.

When we send a command from our computer, it will move this either straight or 90 degrees left or right, and that'll turn the whole wave glider on a path that we design.

Blackbeard then tows this underwater microphone.

It's called a hydrophone.

And these are floats and sinkers that create an 'S' shape to the tow cable because they act as a shock absorber, because this will be pulled along by the sun.

It all looks a little jumbled inside this garage at East Carolina University, where scientists ready Blackbeard for its next mission.

It's been working just perfectly... and it's gonna expand our research capabilities along the coast.

But out on the open ocean...

[ Speaks indistinctly ]

...Blackbeard is a satellite-connected, instrument-laden, oceangoing science robot.

This is the most tricked-out wave glider in the world, and so we had ordered it so we could do things like measure the weather at the sea surface, we can determine the wave height, we can determine water-circulation patterns underneath the wave layer all the way to the bottom.

We can also determine the primary production that's occurring right at that location, so the plankton and so forth is there.

And then we can also listen for fish, turtles, anything else that's tagged with an acoustic tag, and have the ability to pull this tow body, which looks like a torpedo.

And that has a recorder in it that records every noise in the ocean, so that would include snapping shrimp or croakers croaking or red drums drumming or whales humming, dolphins clicking, or -- so, we're identifying the soundscape of the sea.

Sound travels much faster in water than in the air, and how far sound travels underwater depends on water pressure and temperature.

Pressure increases with ocean depth.

Temperature drops to a point but then stabilizes.

And that all means that sound travels in a narrow channel through the ocean, but it can travel a long way...

It gives you an idea of the kind of things that we heard.

[ Croaker croaking ] That's a croaker.

...which means the soundscape of the ocean can provide a wealth of information within those waves of sound.

Here's another sound.

This is a toadfish.

[ Toadfish clicking, grunts ]

It's the toadfish movement.

[ Clicking continues ] [ Toadfish grunts ] Remember, this is 20 feet down, though, but it's away from the surface noise, which is important.

And the sea-creature sounds recorded by Blackbeard reveal a lot about what's happening in the ocean.

We know what the conditions, the environmental conditions, were before we heard the animal, when we heard the animal, and after either the animal leaves or we leave the animal, and so it helps us understand better why that animal is in that particular location.

Another thing that this will allow us to do is, as we're going along, given trajectory here, we can determine where there are biological hotspots -- in other words, where there's a lot of biological diversity, the different sounds that are coming from all the different species.

And there might be some areas that are more like a desert and then other areas that might be more like an oasis, where there's a lot of biological activity.

So that we can study fish, whales, dolphins, plankton, and currents, along with other measurements, without actually having to be physically present on the water.