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Underwater Robots Swim with the Penguins



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Penguin populations are mysteriously diminishing, but if penguin biologist and president of the Polar Oceans Research Group, Bill Fraser, has his way schools of advanced underwater robots will discover the reason why.

The autonomous, underwater robots are called "gliders." The bots are designed and programmed to assimilate pertinent data on the conditions of the various ocean environments they swim through as they follow in the wake of Adelie penguins.

The bold project is being undertaken in the frigid waters encircling the bleak shores of Antarctica.

Tracking the creatures whose colonies have been dying off for decades is no easy task. Until the robots arrival the job was almost impossible. Although mighty efforts have been made with well-outfitted research vessels scouring the areas of the ocean that cover deep sea canyons—a favorite place the penguins visit, hard scientific data was very difficult to gather.   

For years, marine researchers have attached radio transmitters to penguins' bodies in a sometimes futile effort to discover their feeding patterns and the general environmental conditions. The problem was the transmitters were just too small. They were unable to record enough data to accurately determine the root cause of species die-off.

The primary difficulty the researchers faced was the available technology had limits: the transmitters large enough to record and send the necessary data was just too heavy and bulky. Those transmitters can detect food in the water but are just too cumbersome for a 10-pound bird to carry.

The birds often spend days on feeding forays and without round-the-clock accurate tracking determining the exact cause of the dwindling penguin colonies was a study in frustration.    

Fraser and other researchers suspect that the disappearing sea ice is the primary reason the penguins face possible extinction in the future. The southern Antarctic sea ice attracts the krill and algae that provide the birds' primary source of food.

The problem was resolved with the introduction of the gliders. The submersible bots are made to provide a constant data stream.

Fraser with Rutgers University oceanographers Alex Kahl and Oscar Schofield, adopted the underwater bots to their cause.

For many years glider bots have been successfully employed as data gathering machines. Used by researchers to study such things as plankton, ocean fluid dynamics and currents, and the chemistry of particular regions, Schofield teamed up with Fraser to help study the penguins in 2008.

The scientist brought his gliders with him.

Soon the bots confirmed Fraser's hypothesis that the little penguins were feeding in certain areas. The gliders proved that the tiny algae blooms that attract krill were present in the deep underwater canyons.

Schofield explained during an interview with Wired.com that “With the radio tags on the penguins, we could see where they foraged and how deep they were."  But the gliders allowed the researchers to confirm why the penguins congregated over the canyon areas. “For the first time…we know why they’re there."

In the future, Schofield envisions an entire network of entirely automated underwater bots surveying the feeding and migrating patterns of the Adelie penguins.

Perhaps the persistent machines will save the little birds from extinction.

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