Robots to the Rescue

In times of crisis, robots rise to the occasion. Rosie offered domestic assistance to George Jetson, R2-D2 rescued Luke Skywalker from the confines of the Death Star, and RoboCop wiped out crime in futuristic Detroit. But fictional characters aren’t the only ones robots lend a helping hand (or should we say, mechanical appendage) to. Now, robots may aid in protecting whales.

Researchers recently tested a swimming, underwater robot in the Bahamas. The robot can pick up whale calls, and may help in alerting vessels to whales’ whereabouts so that the ships can avoid them.

From an article on Nature’s website:

The scheme relies on a torpedo-shaped glider that zig-zags through the ocean. It can dive down as far as 200 metres below the surface and directs itself by shifting a weight from fore to aft. A microphone attached to the bottom of the glider can pick up calls from all whales, including the high frequency call of the beaked whale, which until now has been difficult to detect. The glider returns periodically to the surface to radio its data back to base, or if that’s too far away, it can call a satellite phone and send its information anywhere in the world.

Scientists hope that the robots will be able to track whales and let nearby ships know that the marine mammals are nearby. This is good news for whales, since some evidence suggests that noise from ships disrupts whale activity and can lead to strandings.

The underwater robot also makes great advances in terms of whale-tracking technology. Previously, gliders had trouble picking up the beaked whales’ call due to its high frequency. Data transmission also presented a problem for prior tracking excursions. Observers used to follow the gliders in ships, or place microphones on the ocean floor with cables leading back to shore. But now, robots can transmit data across the globe.

“We are entering a new era of underwater sensing,” says Jim Theriault of Defence Research and Development Canada, Dartmouth, who ran the trial. “We can put a glider in the Bahamas and monitor it in Nova Scotia.”

Beep bop chirrup boop wheeee. (That’s Droid for “Whale-tracking robots are way awesome.”)