The ocean floor is, as you can imagine, an incredibly hard place to get to. And once you get there, it’s a very inhospitable environment. This makes it a seldom-studied space, though it’s teeming with life and geological activity. And because it’s so vast, even the handful of robots we send down to explore see only a tiny percentage of what goes on down there.
What’s needed, then, is a massive team of undersea robots. That’s the plan for Sensorbots, spherical sea-crawling bots built to aid scientists looking to study the massive, moving ocean and the equally hard to reach ocean floor. Dropped in place by an unmanned submersible, the Sensorbots sit on the sea bed and, with a massive array of sensors, track ocean activity like biological blooms and deep-sea earthquakes.
This summer, a band of 20 Sensorbots snuck a peek into the mouth of an undersea volcano. For three days, they tracked oxygen levels, temperature, and acidity while nestled in a field of hydrothermal vents. They relayed their readings in coded sequences of flashes, documented from above by undersea cameras. Back at the labs, scientists played back the deep-sea light show and decoded the observations.
Those tests looked promising, and the team was "very happy with the results," Deidre Meldrum, a lead scientist on the team wrote to CoExist. But there are several changes in the works. The latest version of Sensorbot has more buoyancy, so it can bob around in various ocean layers; it’s fitted with a monitoring system so scientists know where they’ve moved. But later versions of Sensorbots will move on their own using on-board propulsion systems, Meldrum says.
The Sensorbots will also act as biological sensors. Using microfluidics and micro fabrication techniques, the team is refining the next generation of Sensorbots to suck in and analyze biological samples and carry out basic genetic tests.
Then, swarms of Sensorbots, deployed by the thousands, will scour the deep ocean. In such numbers, they could track large volumes of water rather than just a small area. Working together, they’ll transmit a web of data as a group rather than as disconnected observations—something other sophisticated single robots who also explore underwater aren’t able to do—allowing for a fuller picture of the alien world that exists right here on our own planet.