Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor has just completed her third expedition in Australian waters this year. This past cruise was a first of its kind study, using coordinated groups of seven different underwater robotic vehicles.
The team, led by Dr. Oscar Pizarro from the University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics, had a successful cruise. The remote Scott Reef site was used for experiments aimed at expanding the electronic view of the seafloor and overlying waters.
Scott Reef is extremely remote—some 400 kilometers north from Broome in the Timor Sea and about halfway to Indonesia. But it offers expansive coral habitats, and its south end includes a large lagoon that offers partial protection from surrounding seas.
In total, over 40 dives with various Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) were completed collecting more than 400,000 seafloor images as well as oceanographic information and multibeam bathymetry data from around the lagoon. In total, the science team was able to achieve 19 dives with the IMOS AUV Sirius, totaling 200 hours of bottom time.
Some of this imagery was collected over sites visited in 2009 and 2011, forming part of a time series as part of Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS). This imagery will provide insights into change in these sensitive coral habitats.
“Having multiple robots that can operate simultaneously is a great outcome. This allowed us to explore different aspects of the reef simultaneously from a single ship, something we haven’t done before”, said Dr. Stefan Williams.
The science party also developed a flexible visualization tool for tracking the multiple vehicles relative to each other and to the ship in real time. This allowed anyone to see what was happening on the ship using a computer, TV, or even a smart phone. Capitalizing on public interest in the robots, post-doctoral research engineer Ariell Friedman was able to create a citizen science website, Squidle, using images collected from the AUVs. The site allows participants to label images that will be used to train classification algorithms to help analyze the collected imagery. The team hopes that this can be a fun educational tool that gives students a chance to engage in real science while providing valuable data to the science party.
“We believe this cruise was a big step in pushing oceanographic technology forward,” said chief engineer, Dr. Pizarro. The work will bring engineers closer to being able to leave groups of robotic vehicles unattended for long periods of time to accomplish tasks like seafloor mapping.
For more information about the voyage visit the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s website.