New Autonomous Submersibles Can Take Water Samples Anyplace, Anytime

Underwater vehicles are opening the door to new possibilities for archiving and studying ocean microbes.

A Breakthrough in Marine Biology and Oceanography

Scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and University of Hawaii at Manoa finished work on three new submersible robots. Like other long-range autonomous underwater vehicles (LRAUVs), these subs will collect and transmit detailed information about water chemistry and temperature as they move through the ocean. Unlike other LRAUVs, they also will be able to automatically take and organize ocean water samples at any point along their path. This development will give marine biologists unique insight into the patterns followed by perhaps the most significant of all life forms in terms of regulating our environment: ocean microbes. The robots are endowed with this remarkable capability by an onboard Environmental Sample Processor (ESP).

An Integrated Laboratory—in Miniature

Adding ESPs to these underwater vehicles was a feat of engineering that even the team working on it doubted they could pull off. As Jim Birch, MBARI’s lead engineer on the project, put it, “When we first talked about putting an ESP in an AUV, I thought to myself, ‘this is never going to happen.’”

Interior storage space is scarce in the LRAUVs. It took years of efficiency improvements to add the ESPs, the first iterations of which were the size of a 55-gallon drum. The latest ESPs, which provide researchers with snapshots of the microbial details of each water sample, are only around 10 inches long. For MBARI, this achievement represents the culmination of 15 years of work on the devices.

ESPs, LRAUVs, and Their Implications for Microbial Oceanography

These mini-labs, cruising through the ocean with the help of their robotic chauffeurs, archive each sample as they go. This automated, systematized data collection will provide marine biologists with unprecedented access to information about crucial microflora at specific places and times. 

These organisms are critically important to not just ocean ecosystems, but all life on earth. They are responsible for over half of all oxygen produced photosynthetically and remove a proportional amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Additionally, you may remember from middle school science class that they form the basis of all ocean food webs—and in a broader sense, ocean food webs form the basis of all food webs. These microflora matter.

Their photosynthetic production can be affected by any number of variables, including water temperature, current and chemistry. As our oceans and atmosphere continue to lose oxygen and build carbon dioxide, understanding how these variables impact that production is more important now than ever. In that sense, this new, integrated system for automated sampling of seawater from around the globe couldn’t have come at a better time.

For more ways underwater robots can survey ocean environments, check out Underwater Drones Map Algae Growth in Antarctica.