Where machines plumb new depths
Scientists from the Scottish Association for Marine Science are accessing oceans of data
WATER covers 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface, yet only six per cent of the seabed has been mapped.
But a team at SAMS Scottish Marine Robotics Facility is piloting autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs, to understand what is going on under the waves, where it is extremely expensive, and dangerous, to send scientists in person.
The Scottish Association for Marine Science at Dunstaffnage runs, among its fleet, a 2.5m yellow submarine named Freya, after the Norse god of beauty, love and destiny, which can dive up to 500m to emit a sonic ‘ping’, and detects its reflection, to visualise the underwater landscape, or find and picture lost shipwrecks.
Last year Freya scanned and photographed the wreck of the SS Breda, a Dutch steamship carrying cement, cigarettes, copper ingots, sandals, crockery and banknote paper, which was sunk by Nazi bombers in Ardmuckish Bay near Benderloch during the Second World War.
A second, smaller, propeller- driven robot, called Rebus, can travel up for up to 10 hours over 70km, and down to depths of 600m, to measure turbulence, temperature, salinity, water velocity and chlorophyll fluorescence.
Above the sea, SAMS deploys remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, from Oban airport to track giant features such as jellyfish blooms, which are attracted to warm water and can clog up the intakes of nuclear power stations.
SAMS also operates the North Atlantic Glider Base, deploying seven ‘underwater gliders’ – named after the team’s favourite whiskies – off the Isle of Tiree for seven-month missions up to 1,000m below the surface, making continuous measurements of ocean currents, temperature and pollution.
Anuschka Miller, director of SAMS’ Ocean Explorer Centre, explained: ‘If you don’t have information, you have no idea where things end up, whether it’s lost airplanes or oil spills. In order to predict this, you’ve got to understand what’s going on constantly.’
The gliders are piloted by iPhone, by employees such as former SAMS student Karen Wilson, and every six hours the machines transmit data back to Dunstaffnage via satellite.
Anyone can access the data on the internet, says Fraser Macdonald, whose job at SAMS is to pull all this scientific information together into a usable product.
‘I work in knowledge exchange, asking how our science can be used,’ he told ‘If it has benefits to other people, it can have a higher impact.’
One example he cites is tracking ocean fronts between hot and cold water, which con- centrate fish, seabird and sea mammal activity, and so could help marine tourism business better predict where to see wildlife.
Fraser Macdonald and Karen Wilson test their equipment at their Dunstaffnage base and, below, some of the sea- gliders they operate.