'Flying' Underwater at the Bottom of the Planet

ByABC News
December 14, 2006, 8:53 AM

Dec. 14, 2006 — -- An underwater robot glider that appears to "fly" as it gathers scientific data will soon be deployed in the frigid waters off the coast of Antarctica. But the scientists controlling its every move will be in New Jersey, about 7,600 miles away.

Researchers say the technology will help demonstrate the future of scientific exploration near the planet's south pole using remote controlled vehicles, while also helping provide a clearer picture of the effects of global warming on the region.

"It works very similar to a glider you'd use in the air," said Josh Kohut, a physical oceanographer and a member of the glider team at the Coastal Ocean Observation Laboratory at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "The big difference is that because we're in the ocean, we can essentially adjust gravity. Instead of just gliding down, we can have it glide up."

Kohut and colleagues say they believe this is the first time a glider like this has been deployed in Antarctic waters. It doesn't have a propeller, but instead sucks water in to begin its descent and purges it out to rise to the ocean's surface.

Researchers plan to launch the glider from a vessel off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula around Jan. 8. It is programmed to slowly dive to depths of up to approximately 650 feet, taking readings and gathering data along the way.

Every six hours, it will return to the surface and use a satellite orbiting in space to make a phone call back home. As it bobs in the surf, the glider's small antenna will transmit data via satellite back to the Rutgers lab thousands of miles away.

Controllers -- who refer to themselves as "pilots" -- will download the glider data and transmit new instructions as they monitor its journey on a computer.

In the future, the Rutgers team envisions a fleet of remotely operated gliders that could offer a year-round scientific presence in Antarctica -- a part of the globe that traditionally has been difficult and expensive to monitor with much larger research vessels.