These Plankton-Like Robots Are Drifting Through the Ocean to Help Save Sea Life


Image: Jules Jaffe
Image: Jules Jaffe
Twenty years after they first met and 15 years since they began work on the project, oceanographers Jules Jaffe and Peter Franks have finally realized their vision of a robot that can be programmed to act like plankton. Their Miniature Autonomous Underwater Explorer (M-AUE) gets pushed around by the currents, tracks its surroundings, and allows scientists to measure oceanic properties in 3D relatively inexpensively, for the first time. Also, it happens to look like a Minion from the Despicable Me movie series, but that’s more of an accidental side effect.

By Farnia Fekri | MOTHERBOARD

If all goes according to plan, the data gathered by the robots could show how notoriously tricky ocean movements affect aquatic creatures like plankton, or how to limit the spread of algal blooms and oil spills. Their robots are described in the Jan. 24 issue of Nature Communications.

or Jaffe and Franks, both of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the publication is the culmination of almost two decades of work. It all began when Jaffe said to Franks, “You know, I was thinking of building some drifters.”

Lots of people build “drifters,” or ocean-going robots. Franks wanted to know how theirs would be different. “What if we made them so they could change their buoyancy, and they could go up and down like plankton?” Jaffe responded.

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